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Clint Eastwood stars as Earl Stone, a man in his 80s who is broke, alone, and facing foreclosure of his business when he is offered a job that simply requires him to drive. Easy enough, but, unbeknownst to Earl, he's just signed on as a drug courier for a Mexican cartel. He does well, so well, in fact, that his cargo increases exponentially, and Earl is assigned a handler. But he isn't the only one keeping tabs on Earl; the mysterious new drug mule has also hit the radar of hard-charging DEA agent Colin Bates. And even as his money problems become a thing of the past, Earl's past mistakes start to weigh heavily on him, and it's uncertain if he'll have time to right those wrongs before law enforcement, or the cartel's enforcers, catch up to him."
Other footage has been shot elsewhere than in Atlanta, for example, in the Midwest cities' DEA offices, where Laurence Fishburne, Bradley Cooper, and Michael Peña's characters work, as well as the sites used for the home. Mary, the local veterans, the Ginny wedding reception room or a roadside motel. For the sequences in the tire shop that serves as a den of the cartel, the team traveled to New Mexico, and for the impressive property of Laton, a house was spotted in Las Cruces, and decorated to match the opulence and extravagance of the boss of the cartel. See more »
When Earl completes his second run, in the new black truck, he parks at the motel and exits without putting the keys in the glove compartment. See more »
Laconic, measured and easy to digest, although it could have done with more substance
63 years since he first appeared on-screen (an uncredited role in Revenge of the Creature (1955)), The Mule is 88-year-old Clint Eastwood's first acting role since Trouble with the Curve (2012), and his first film as a director since about a week ago. It is, however, the first time he's directed himself since the excellent Gran Torino (2008). Known for being incredibly efficient when it comes to filmmaking, Eastwood likes to get scripts into production before they've gone through too many rewrites, he rigidly shoots only what's on the page, he avoids multiple takes and on-set experimentation, and he keeps the editing process as simple as possible - so basically, he's the anti-Terrence Malick. With this in mind, he has maintained an extraordinary rate of turnover, with The Mule the 37th feature he's directed since Play Misty for Me (1971). Of course, when you work at that rate for as long as he has, you're going to put out a few duds, and although his directorial output has gone through ups and downs in the past, his most recent work has been arguably the most disappointing of his career, with pretty much everything he's directed since Gran Torino being subpar. Whether it's the hokey sentimentality of Hereafter (2010), the oversimplification (and awful makeup) of J. Edgar (2011), the lifeless Jersey Boys (2014), the unashamed and troubling jingoism of American Sniper (2014), the unnecessary embellishments of Sully (2016), or the spectacularly misjudged experiment in casting that was The 15:17 to Paris (2018), the days when he could direct no less than seven masterpieces - Unforgiven (1992), A Perfect World (1993), The Bridges of Madison County (1995), Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Flags of Our Fathers (2006), and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) - in a 14-year period are long gone. Indeed, the most notable thing he's done in the last decade is ramble somewhat incoherently to an empty chair. The bad news is that The Mule is a strangely formless film, almost a random collection of only vaguely connected scenes rather than an actual narrative with forward momentum; it has precious little depth or nuance; there's some troubling casual racism, most of which we're encouraged to laugh at; the tone is all over the place; Eastwood's character has not one, but two threesomes with young women; and it wastes almost all of its excellent cast. The good news is that, somehow, it's extremely enjoyable, and is easily the best film he's directed since Gran Torino.
Telling the story of Earl Stone (Eastwood), a 90-year-old horticulturist and Korean War veteran, who becomes the Sinaloa Cartel's most prolific drug mule, the film is Nick Schenk, based on Sam Dolnick's 2014 New York Times article, "The Sinaloa Cartel's 90-Year-Old Drug Mule", which tells the story of Leo Sharp, an award-winning horticulturist and World War II veteran who became the Sinaloa Cartel's most reliable mule. The Mule is laconic and contemplative, laid-back and not especially dramatic (there's more fireworks in the arguments Stone has with his family than in his relationship with the Cartel. Indeed, as drama, The Mule is fairly insubstantial, telling a threadbare story populated by underwritten characters, void of much of an emotional core, and with next-to-nothing in the way of an exciting dénouement.
In a lot of ways, Stone is not unlike Walt Kowalski, the hateful racist character Eastwood played in Gran Torino. They are both Korean War veterans who find themselves alienated from the world they live in, and who believe the next generation lack fortitude (at one point, Stone complains, "this generation can't open a fruit-box without calling the internet"). However, Stone is much softer, and on the universal scale of racism, whereas Kowalski is Mel Gibson-racist, Stone is Prince Philip-racist; the type of racism we forgive because he's 837 years old, half-senile, and grew up "in a different time." Sure, he calls Hispanics "beaners" and jokes about them getting deported, but they don't seem to mind. Sure, he pulls over to help a black couple change a tire, proudly telling them he likes "to help the negro folks out", but they just politely inform him that people don't use the word "negro" anymore. These examples are played for laughs, and whilst that might be fair enough in a film that depicts non-Caucasians with something resembling diversity, The Mule's non-white characters are one-dimensional stereotypes; every Hispanic character, for example, is either a drug-running criminal or an industrious labourer. If the film itself didn't come across as so racially reductive, Stone's racism would be easier to accept and defend.
Perhaps the film's most egregious failing, however, is that it never once addresses the fact that Stone's criminal enterprise is fuelling addiction and destroying lives. The darker implications of his drug-running are kept firmly behind the curtain, out of sight of the audience. Instead, The Mule presents Stone as almost a modern-day Robin Hood, using his new-found cash to pay for his grand-daughter's wedding and education, and to renovate the local VA hall. Even when the film has no option but to directly deal with his criminality, it's done in such a way as to minimise the darker aspects. For example, Laton (Andy Garcia) may be the most jovial and least-threatening drug lord ever put on screen. García does what he can with the part, but given the fact that most of his screen time sees him fooling about with a solid gold shotgun, his options are limited. A much more effective character is Gustavo (Clifton Collins Jr.), Laton's henchman. Collins Jr. is a superb actor, and can do legitimately intimidating in his sleep, but even an actor of his calibre can do little with only three scenes, in two of which he doesn't even have any dialogue.
Hand-in-hand with the film's non-threatening drug runners is its depiction of local law enforcement, who are, for the most part, presented sarcastically (at one point, Stone distracts a pesky cop with a tub of caramel popcorn). The DEA characters are presented a little more respectfully, however. Laurence Fishburne's unnamed character, for example, is depicted as a good agent shackled by a bureaucracy that only cares for short-term wins. Thus, they pressure him to pressure his field agents to get results before the case has matured, meaning any arrests will be strictly low-level.
A key scene in relation to the film's depiction of both law-enforcement and minorities, but one which is disappointingly played for laughs, is when the cops pull over who they think is their man only to quickly realise their mistake (it's a young Hispanic) and they're guilty of racial profiling. The man is terrified, well aware of stats concerning police shootings of non-whites (there's something deeply unsettling about how well he knows the routine, and his line, "statistically speaking, this is the most dangerous five minutes of my life" speaks volumes about modern America). The scene should have given rise to a socio-political commentary but Eastwood is more interested in guffaws. We've seen racial profiling and resultant deaths examined in several recent films - Widows (2018), The Hate U Give (2018), and Monsters and Men (2018) - as well as slightly older titles such as Crash (2004) and Fruitvale Station (2013), but the depiction here is, sadly, very shallow. The film is also silent on the inverse - that Stone is such a good mule because of his white privilege.
Another issue is that the film's structure is bizarre - there's no real sense of narrative cohesion, as one scene jumps to another without a huge amount connecting them. You could take the various driving scenes, cut them in a completely different manner, and you would still have the same film. The whole thing feels void of urgency, and after a while you realise that the threadbare outline of a story is all the story you're going to get. Additionally, there's an utter lack of tension (for which Eastwood tries to compensate with silly scenes such as when Agent Bates (Bradley Cooper) follows Stone into a parking lot and shouts "Hey." Is he going to arrest our hero? Nah, Stone just left his flask behind). On top of this, the way Eastwood's camera leers at the bare posteriors of a bunch of women at a party in Laton's house is disconcerting, and pretty much a textbook example of the male gaze. Also, with the single exception of Stone, the characters are one-dimensional at best.
If all that sounds negative, it should, because I focused on what I felt was wrong with the film. However, irrespective of these failings, I thoroughly enjoyed The Mule. It could and should have been a lot better. It could have been a socially conscious thriller looking at racial profiling, drug-dealing, American masculinity, generational conflict, socio-economic issues. But, in fairness, that isn't the film Eastwood set out to make. He has made many interesting political films in his career. The Mule is not one of them. Instead, he's turned the material into a jaunty, congenial, inoffensive, and easy-to-watch meditation on age and family, set in a milieu where the one-time trappings of male success are now considered character failings, and focused on a character unable to wrap his brain around this shift in ideology. Despite myself, I can forgive the casual racism, the structural problems, the wasted cast, the use of serious social issues to get cheap laughs, and I can do so because the film is simply enjoyable. The Mule isn't going to change your life, nor is it going to win Eastwood a legion of new fans. But it was never supposed to. Instead, it accomplishes exactly what it set out to do. And it's immensely entertaining to boot.
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