The Mule (2018)

Clint Eastwood is 88 years old and has been in American films for a long time. 

He first came to most people’s attention in the TV series Rawhide (1959-65). Many people seem to know the character he played, Rowdy Yates. Even then he was the taciturn cowboy, the ‘Rowdy’ being a nickname aimed at the opposite of his persona. That is, he didn’t say much.

RAW HIDE? A VERY YOUNG CLINT EASTWOOD

His directorial debut was Play Misty For Me (1971) and this has a tenuous historical Film Club association because fellow member Terri Reilly and I saw it together at the drive-in in 1972.

Play Misty For Me was my youthful introduction to the fact that women can be scary. Not Terri but Jessica Walter playing a stalker cum murderess infatuated with Eastwood’s disc jockey character. 

Watching Clint on TV when I was less than 10 years old and seeing him at the drive-in, an entertainment which only people of a certain age even remember, gives context, at least to me, of Eastwood’s career longevity. 

His directorial CV includes Unforgiven (1992), The Bridges of Madison County (1995), Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Gran Torino (2008), Changeling (2008), Invictus (2009), J. Edgar (2011) American Sniper (2014), Sully (2016), and he is back in harness as actor-director in The Mule (2018).

One could be forgiven (unforgiven?) for thinking his ego is stretching it by starring in a movie at such an age but it possibly says something for the taciturn make up of the man? All that stored energy has left him fruitful in his later years.

So why is The Mule so unsatisfying? 

NON PISSED OFF MOMENT: WEIST AND EASTWOOD

Is 88 too old to still be a directorial force? Is 88 too old to carry a film as lead even though the character you’re playing was in his late 80s when he was arrested for transporting cocaine across State lines? 

It shouldn’t be but Eastwood appears slightly off his game in the first while more than competent in the second. The film’s screenplay writer Nick Schenk (who wrote the touching Gran Torino) is even more off his game. Despite some good lines (“You do a great Jimmy Stewart” I thought the funniest), Schenk seems to have assembled the plot in haste.

The disjointedness of The Mule, a film  about family values, forgiveness and regrets, distracts from a pretty good story and an entertaining ride.  

After his home and day-lily business is taken back by his bank, horticulturalist Earl Stone (Eastwood) becomes a drug mule for a Mexican cartel. He earns a lot of money driving cocaine from El Paso, Texas to Chicago, Illinois.  This helps pay for his grand daughter’s wedding, save his veterans’ club from closing down for good, buys him a new truck and eventually his home and business are restored. 

Meanwhile there are side stories: DEA agents (an under developed Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena) are working to bust the cartels; Earl’s daughter Iris (real-life daughter Alison Eastwood) hasn’t spoken to her father in the 12 years since he forgot to attend her wedding; former wife Mary (Diane Weist) is pissed off at him but tolerant of his attendance at most family occasions; the cartel’s head man Laton (Andy Garcia) is oblivious that his henchmen are going to take over and a cartel “babysitter” Axl (Manny Montana) warms somewhat towards the mule he has to oversee after first finding him a handful.

All this had the potential to be a reasonably good thriller with occasional snippets of black humour. Instead, Schenk serves dessert spoons of sugar to sweeten the tale. It pains me to say, Clint the master director goes along with it. The plot has holes like a soldier’s socks.

For instance:

*Why does Earl not work out on his first run that an employee of a tyre shop doesn’t tote a machine gun unless something smelly is going on with the job he has to do? (He works out on the third drive that he is carrying cocaine).

*Why did we have to keep going to the DEA office to see the waning but continued support of Laurence Fishburne, as Cooper’s boss and the insistence of bureaucrats to get a drug bust?  Surely Cooper’s character could have been introduced another way and sharp dialogue between he and Pena enough to explain their investigative struggles (significantly cutting the movie’s length)?

*Why when the DEA stakes out a motel knowing their quarry drives a black pick-up truck, don’t they take a peek inside the tray of every black pick-up in the lot?

*Why when Earl meets Laton, who organises two shapely young women to have sex with him does Earl reappear by the pool in the middle of the night? One would think that he’d still be sleeping until noon the following day?

*Why when he disappears for days on his most lucrative run, reappears and cops a hiding from his cartel watchers, is he then allowed to drive on alone without their usual following in the car behind?

There were more of these but as discussed by our club, it was just easier for Schenk to write a dumbed-down vehicle for its intended audience. “Plot holes? Who’ll notice them?” Some crew member (editor, continuity?) needed to tighten up some of the material.

Eastwood’s directorial CV – and another dozen films could have been added which are all of great merit – is superb.

However, it’s 27 years since his masterpiece, Unforgiven, and it showed somewhat in The Mule.

Score: 2.5

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