Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Dianne Wiest
The Mule is a strange creature: It is all about and yet has little to do with the aging legend at its center. Clint Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a 90-year-old veteran of the Korean War, who, at the beginning of the film, callously decides to forego the wedding of his own daughter (real-life offspring Alison Eastwood) so he can whoop it up at a convention shilling his prized day-lilies. Years later, with the Internet drying up his horticultural business and the nuptials of his beloved granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) coming up, Earl becomes a runner for a Mexican drug lord (Andy Garcia). As federal authorities led by a hungry FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) close in, Earl ironically gets a second wind in his life.
Eastwood also directed from a script by Nick Schenk, which was, in turn, inspired by The New York Times Magazine’s 2014 article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule” by Sam Dolnick. The piece, fascinating as it is, generally left its subject (named Leo Sharp in real life) a mystery, so Eastwood and his screenwriter filled in the blanks, making Earl a gregarious, flirtatious charmer. In the process, the Hollywood icon gave himself a chance to be at his loosest, most mischievous, most twinkling. It’s a sharp turn from the remote curmudgeons he’s played in Gran Torino and Trouble With the Curve.
But the theme connecting Eastwood’s films—a throughline dissecting and criticizing what it means to be a certain kind of American man—is still present. Eastwood’s men are prisoners of a vanishing world—where paternal duties end with bringing home a paycheck, and casual racism doesn’t count as racism at all—and the filmmaker’s preoccupation is bringing these flawed heroes some redemption. It is quite affecting to watch because, especially in The Mule, Eastwood leans into his age—his posture stooped, his skin papery, his voice singing along to Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” extra-gravelly.
The Mule’s biggest drawback is that Earl is the most fleshed-out character in the whole enterprise. Earl’s conflict with his family is never elevated above recrimination and bickering until a melodramatic resolution is foisted on the actors. There is a subplot about Earl becoming a father figure to his handler (Ignacio Serricchio) that goes nowhere after a promising start. Among Eastwood’s co-stars, Bradley Cooper is given the most to do, as he flings commands and is given a hint of a family life. (It’s refracted through his legendary co-star’s wisdom and experience, of course). Dianne Wiest and Andy Garcia are given a few moments to shine, but the rest of an accomplished cast—Michael Peña as Cooper’s sidekick, Laurence Fishburne as Cooper’s FBI boss, Clifton Collins Jr. as a wannabe drug kingpin—are relegated to glorified cameos.
Everything that happens around Earl feels like they are happening at a remove, inconsequential to him as he obliviously goes his way and receives a redemption that he barely earns. Earl is Eastwood’s most disarming character by far, but also his most frustrating—a character that has stuff happen to him, rather than making them happen. The Mule doesn’t quite deliver the kick it promises, but Eastwood at his most fragile, poignant and humorous is still a sight to behold.
The Mule opens exclusively in Ayala Malls on Wednesday, January 31.