Movie Review: Eastwood Is Back As The Mule

Somebody needs to give the trailer editor at Warner Bros. a raise because I am filing this movie under the “trailer is better than the movie” category. There is still some joy to be had with The Mule, especially with Clint Eastwood’s turn as a peevish man looking at the world around him and only seeing morons. He is at times cruelly funny, borderline racist and his redemption arc carries some grace notes.

Synopsis: Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) is a eighty-something horticulturist staring at the demise of his once flourishing flower business. He is estranged from his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Iris (Allison Eastwood) and running out of options. Then someone approaches him at his granddaughter’s (Taissa Farmiga) engagement party with a proposal: to haul cargo from one state to another state, no questions asked. Earl is the favoured mule because he is white, has no traffic violations and is old. His eventual trouble comes from DEA agents (Bradley Cooper & Michael Peña) who are desperate to make a bust. The story is based on the life of Leo Sharp, the world’s oldest drug mule who was arrested in 2011 at age 87.

For the past two weeks I was immersed in the drug-addled world of The Wire (Season 4) and it is actually my second time watching this. If you are a film lover worth your salt, you will agree with me that this is one helluva magnum opus. It is a macroscopic, and at times microscopic, examination of the plight of inner-city Baltimore suffering at the throes of drugs. No stone is left unturned as the series turned a keen eye on the users, pushers, distributors, runners, smugglers, children, teachers, police, polticians and media. So imagine I went from this to the world of The Mule and immediately every mistake lies bare, glaringly like neon-lit arrow signs.

This is a could-have-been film and the main problem lies with the screenplay by Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) that didn’t give the characters much to do. Even the exposition is clunky, with characters rambling backstories. It does use some flashbacks to shine on how Earl used to be a ladies’ man, his preoccupation with the flower business and his annoyance at all things using the internet. Other than that, there is little headway into his character motivations. So it is frustrating that his Breaking Bad moment is drawn in a wishy washy manner. Are we to assume that all through the first few drives across states for the drug cartel, he doesn’t question his ethics?

Even why he is doing it requires us to infer too much. At one point, in a lazy piece of writing, Earl finally finds out he is transporting drugs when he opens a bag (this scene is in the trailer) and has a close call with a police officer. That is the closest to a Breaking Bad moment we will get and the idea is immediately swept under a carpet. If Earl had it bad, the sub-plot involving DEA agents played by A-listers Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña and Laurence Fishburne, fair even worse.

Clint Eastwood may not as as spry as his last turn as an actor in Trouble with the Curve (2012), but he still packs some, even if this role is right smack in his comfort zone. Scenes of him chasing the sun in his truck is mesmerising and his weather-beaten face carries much melancholy beauty. The Mule probably falls comfortably into Eastwood’s second tier and if it is his swansong as an actor, he can still be proud of it.

Written by Daniel Chiam