For about two-thirds of its running time, The Mule feels what it should be – an affable, briskly-directed tale of an old white dude who finds himself running copious amounts of narcotics for a Mexican cartel. The film has elements of Gran Torino with a mild dash of Breaking Bad, allowing director/star Clint Eastwood to both literally and figuratively snarl at the internet, racial profiling, wasting family time and the like.
Unfortunately, all the good will in the world can’t make up for this by-the-numbers flick that falters by its own formulaic tendencies. The attempt may be laudable, but the end result is a mushy bit of nonsense.
Still, when it clicks early on, its fun to see the Clint we expect, his grizzled visage lined with many stories. When we’re simply with him driving along, singing to jazz standards, the legendary actor inhabits the role with ease.
He’s joined by a fine retinue, including Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne and Michael Peña. Dianne Wiest (almost two decades Eastwood’s junior) plays what approximates an age-appropriate partner for Clint, doing her utmost to inject humanity into a two-dimensional role.
The story sees nonagenarian Korean War vet Earl Stone (Eastwood) forced to retire from his horticulture business and take up work schlepping a bunch of nefarious merchandise for a slew of tattooed, machine gun-toting Mexican gangster stereotypes. It doesn’t really get any more complex than that. This is “the cartel,” in all its simplified glory, and this is who he’s working for. We meet the cartel leader (Andy Garcia), resplendent in full Scarface ostentation, shooting clay pigeons with a golden shotgun and demanding applause from his minions.
Writer Nick Schenk uses many of the same beats he did for Eastwood’s Gran Torino, but the seams show even more here. Why would a cartel leader casually invite someone down to his home over the border while simultaneously trying to avoid suspicion? Why wouldn’t Earl switch out his black pickup truck when he recognizes that similar trucks are being systematically targeted? Little of the plot holds up to scrutiny, making the whole thing feel lazy and half-baked.
Still, we’re meant to simply sit back and enjoy Mr. Eastwood shirtless and being pleasured by two buxom women paid by his employer, or be amused by scenes where he flirts with polka singers and flower show women alike. It’s a charming bit of fun where the stakes don’t particularly feel high.
The film never quite knows what it wants to be and never particularly gets the tone right. Even the storybook ending of moral culpability is darkened when one knows full well that it’s a fantasy, that such betrayal could never be allowed to stand. But, once again, thinking too much about it is clearly not intended.
Take a look at another film also dealing with an aged action star making his score, and see how nuanced and warm Robert Redford appears in The Old Man & the Gun. The contrast is unfavorable to this movie, but it shows that The Mule could be rescued with some more structural depth and character development.
Alas, we can only rate the journey that we’ve been invited to take. As it stands, we’re left with a maudlin Mule, mediocre at best. Eastwood’s surely having more fun than we are, and I won’t begrudge that, but we deserve more from this talented filmmaker.