Review: The Mule

PLOT: A ninety year old horticulturist (Clint Eastwood) tries to make some quick money by becoming an unlikely drug mule for the Cartel. Soon however, his own success puts him on the map of a determined DEA agent (Bradley Cooper) while the Cartel starts demanding more and more loads.

REVIEW: Considering this is Clint Eastwood’s first starring role in six years, one would have expected more of a critical push by his home studio, Warner Bros, especially with it being moved into the Oscar corridor at the eleventh hour. Yet, despite this seemingly optimistic move, very few screenings for critics were held, with a whole lot of us having to wait until opening day to check it out — usually a sign of a bad movie.

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While Eastwood has made some bad movies, among them the recent 15:17 TO PARIS, THE MULE definitely isn’t among them. I’d call this comfortably second tier for Eastwood as a director, although it frustratingly suffers from some of the same glaring technical errors as his more recent efforts. I get that he shoots and edits quickly, but it really hurts an otherwise successful movie like THE MULE when major characters suddenly drop out for unexplained reasons (I assume one character was killed in an excised scene — although it leads to a hugely sloppy plot hole), or when things like process shots come off looking fake. It’s odd, because when he wants to Eastwood can be impeccable, such as in the recent SULLY.

If you can forgive the sometimes sloppy assembly, there’s a lot to like about THE MULE. For one thing, Eastwood nails a complicated role. His Earl Stone (loosely based on a real drug mule) is among his most irascible characters. A foul-mouthed racist and absentee dad, who’ll skip his own daughter’s (real life daughter Alison Eastwood) wedding to bask in the success of his new crop of flowers, Stone isn’t Eastwood trying to be a likeable rascal.

Many critics are pointing out the problematic nature of his protagonist, but while he’s certainly something of a racist I don’t think you can call the movie itself that. When he uses a wildly outdated term to refer to some stranded motorists he helps, we’re invited to mock his stupidity. Eastwood’s not trying to glorify the character. He’s among the most unlikable characters Eastwood has ever played, but that makes his arc more interesting. Had he been a sweetheart, the film wouldn’t have been terribly good.

It’s also worth noting that Eastwood, despite being one of the original “just say no” guys, tries to empathize with some of the cartel guys, or at least the lower-ranking ones. None of them are portrayed as especially blood thirsty, save for the one big bad, played by the always great Clifton Collins, Jr. Even Andy Garcia’s drug kingpin is allowed to be charming, while the scary, tattooed henchmen have occasional moments of sympathy and reticence towards violence.

That’s not to say though that THE MULE always works. One moment, where Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena (both of whom get mostly thankless roles) pull over a Latino driver the suspect of being a mule makes an odd choice to play the fear minorities have for law enforcement for laughs which, to give his critics their due, is not something Eastwood should be poking fun at.

For the most part, THE MULE is a serviceable, entertaining Eastwood movie, with some lovely chemistry between him and co-star Dianne Wiest (who plays his long-suffering ex), but not quite up to par with the really solid trailer, that suggested this might be really amazing (for my money, WB has the best trailer cutters in the biz). It’s B-level Eastwood, but considering how prolific he’s been, that’s not half bad.