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In Theaters: THE MULE (2018)

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THE MULE
(US/Canada - 2018)

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Nick Schenk. Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Pena, Dianne Wiest, Andy Garcia, Ignacio Serricchio, Taissa Farmiga, Alison Eastwood, Richard Herd, Clifton Collins Jr., Loren Dean, Eugene Cordero, Victor Rasuk, Noel G, Robert LaSardo, Lobo Sebastian, Manny Montana. (R, 116 mins)

Since his post-UNFORGIVEN resurgence in the early 1990s, there's been an air of awards prestige around most new films by Clint Eastwood. There was certainly that feeling surrounding THE MULE when the grim and downbeat trailer turned up a couple of months ago, but the film itself is much more light and loose than you'd expect, and frequently quite funny. Inspired by the true story of Leo Sharp, a 90-year-old Michigan retiree who became an unlikely courier for the Sinaloa cartel, THE MULE stars Eastwood, in his first time in front of the camera since 2012's TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, as 90-year-old Earl Stone, a Korean War vet and award-winning rural Illinois horticulturist who's big on the day-lily circuit but never seemed to have the time for his family. In a 2005 prologue, he skips the wedding of his daughter Iris (Clint's daughter Alison Eastwood) to accept an award at a horticulture convention at an area Holiday Inn. Cut to 2017, and Earl's home and business have been foreclosed, a casualty of internet convenience, and he's got nowhere to go. Iris hasn't spoken to him in 12 years, and his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) reads him the riot act for showing up at a party for their engaged granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga), the only member of the family who wants anything to do with him. After being ripped to shreds in front of everyone  is approached by a friend (Victor Rasuk) of a bridesmaid about a potential job "just driving." Desperate for income and wanting to contribute financially to Ginny's wedding, affable and naive Earl ends up driving to El Paso in his beat-up truck to pick up a package, drive it back to Peoria, leave his truck at a motel, come back in an hour, and find an envelope full of cash in the glove compartment waiting for him, no questions asked.






Ignorance is bliss, and Earl nods, smiles, and keeps quiet, but the more runs he makes, the more packed the envelopes are. He buys a new truck, pays for the remodeling of a fire-damaged local VFW post, and picks up the open bar tab at Ginny's wedding, much to the disapproval of Mary and Iris. Curiosity gets the better of him on one run and he looks inside a bag in his truck bed, finally realizing that he's running drugs for the cartel operation of Mexican drug kingpin Laton (Andy Garcia). The money's too good for him to stop, even as he's invited down to Laton's palace in Mexico, where the cartel boss seems unaware of a mutiny in his ranks, led by an ambitious underling (Clifton Collins Jr.). Meanwhile, in Chicago, DEA agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Pena) are told to tighten the screws on the drug trade by their boss (Laurence Fishburne), who's being directed by his boss to get busts at any cost. Bates objects to nabbing little fish at the expense of possibly losing the bigger ones, but a desperate informant (Eugene Cordero) facing two life sentences tells him of a major new "mule" in Laton's cartel known as "Tata," one who's been delivering major drug shipments to Illinois in a shiny new black truck.


Despite its potentially heavy, downer subject matter, THE MULE, written by GRAN TORINO scribe Nick Schenk, makes for a surprising crowd-pleaser, or at least as much of a crowd-pleaser as the story of a geriatric drug trafficker can be. It coasts almost entirely on the screen presence of its living legend star in a career now in its seventh decade, but even as a director, Eastwood seems little more engaged than he has on his too-often sloppy work of late, particularly in his unofficial "American Heroes" trilogy of AMERICAN SNIPER, SULLY, and this year's earlier, awful THE 15:17 TO PARIS. Eastwood the director has always had a "just get it done" philosophy, but as he's gotten older, that efficiency has often devolved into abject carelessness, reaching its nadir with the half-assed PARIS, but save for its rushed finale (including an offscreen beating that we probably should've seen), it's the return of a relatively more disciplined Eastwood (he still blowtorched through the production, which began shooting in June 2018 and is here in theaters just six months later). It's got plenty of laughs, but it's serious enough that it doesn't lapse into geezer comedy vulgarity. This is despite the fact that the 88-year-old Eastwood has cast himself in a film where his character partakes in not one, but two threesomes with women young enough to be his granddaughters. THE MULE probably could've been something more socially or politically conscious and "meaningful" (the internet's impact on Earl's day-lily empire is about as close as it gets to making a statement about the economy's shifting landscape), but it's an Eastwood vehicle first and foremost, and there's some poignancy in his attempts at stepping up when his estranged family needs him, and reconciling with his ex-wife (Wiest is terrific) and daughter, which has the added resonance of being a real-life father and daughter on screen.


Much is made of Earl feeling like "somebody" in the horticulture world when he was a "nobody" at home, which was his excuse for always being away. That's more or less the reasoning that pulls him deeper into the world of Laton's operation. Laton is so pleased with his work as a driver that Earl can't help but bask in the adulation. He's somebody here, even if it's as a drug courier, and getting caught never seems to enter his mind. The initial trailer made absolutely no attempt at selling how funny THE MULE can be, but it's mostly from recognizing the absurdity of a 90-year-old drug mule without actually condoning what he's doing. When a pair of cartel flunkies bug Earl's truck and follow him close behind on a run, they listen in disbelief as he spends the whole trip singing along to oldies on the radio. We soon see Earl behind the wheel belting out "Ain't That a Kick in the Head," with the cartel guys in their car, singing along. And it gets a huge laugh from the audience.


Earl also has a knack for developing a folksy rapport with everyone, even as he drops unfiltered and at times casually racist asides that aren't meant to be hurtful, as the elderly are wont to do. He gets chummy with his El Paso and Peoria cartel contacts (among them the inevitable Noel G and Robert LaSardo), who are soon affectionately calling him "Big Papa" as they BS while loading his truck ("How's your nephew doing?" Earl asks one). Before his business is closed, he refers to one Mexican employee's car as a "taco truck" and jokes with him about getting deported. Or when he treats a pair of cartel guys to pulled pork sandwiches at a roadside rib joint down south, where they're eyeballed by the red-state clientele and harassed by a local cop. "Everyone's staring at us," one says, as Earl replies "Because you're two beaners in a bowl of crackers!" Or stopping on the highway to help a stranded black family change a flat tire and not realizing "negro" is no longer the preferred nomenclature. Is THE MULE essential Eastwood? Not in the big picture, but it's his most satisfying work as a filmmaker since GRAN TORINO a decade ago, also the last film in which he directed himself (his producing partner Robert Lorenz helmed TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, though in a very Eastwood-like fashion). Eastwood's effortless charisma and his no-bullshit persona haven't diminished a bit with the years, and it's always cause for celebration when we're given an increasingly rare chance to see him onscreen.

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