WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Loosely based on a true story, Earl Stone is a ninety-year-old former travelling salesman, whose freewheeling life has left him alienated from his family and with barely a penny to his name. Earl finds a new lease on life, however, when he takes up an offer to transport drugs for a Mexican drug cartel but even as the money pours in and he starts to reconnect with his estranged family, both the capricious leader of the cartel and a tenacious DEA agent named Colin Bates start closing in on his seemingly perfect scheme.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Clint Eastwood is no stranger to making films about old men trying to come to terms with their past actions and two of his very best film, as both an actor and director, have been about exactly that. Unforgiven and Gran Torino are wildly different from one another in most respects but they are both ultimately meditations on age, legacy and regret and they both cast a long shadow over Eastwood’s latest effort, the Mule.
This story, based on a New York Times article about Earl Stone, a retired travelling salesman who becomes a drug mule for one of the most ruthless drug cartels in Central America, is undeniably pretty astonishing in a way that only stranger-than-fiction true stories can be but even armed with such undeniably compelling source material, Eastwood struggles to elevate the Mule beyond the decidedly ordinary. It’s diverting enough and Eastwood and Bradley Cooper make for an engaging pair on opposite sides of the law but even with a strong supporting cast and Eastwood’s typically understated but effective direction on hand, the Mule is neither as fun or as intriguing as its killer premise suggests.
The film is basically a fairly straightforward mix of family-drama and crime-thriller but it underwhelms as either. As a family drama, it is blandly predictable with its stock family archetypes and obvious life lessons, belying the fact that this a story about real people rather than lazily drawn fictional creations. As a crime-thriller, it adds up to nothing more than a collection of very familiar drug-cartel clichés standing in for anything even remotely approaching a memorable narrative. Both sides of the story are buoyed by some a-list acting talent but it’s pretty humdrum stuff, played out over a much too long two-hour running time that is made worse by the fact that, from Earl’s very first “delivery”, you’re left waiting for the inevitable other shoe to drop.
Things also aren’t helped by either Eastwood’s steady-handed direction or Nick Schenk’s solid script because though such understated filmmaking would work well if the film had more depth and nuance than it does but something this straightforward needs to work as a piece of entertainment and most of the film is just a bit too leaden to do so. It’s hard to tell what becomes tiresome quicker: the endless parade of scenes of Earl struggling to reconnect with his family or the equally ceaseless run ins with the cartel, but the film is desperately in need of more and better crackling, funny dialogue and/or some pizazz in its presentation.
All that said, though, the film still manages to get at least a lukewarm recommendation from me, thanks to its two lead actors. Bradley Cooper’s star has been on the rise in recent years (which, of course, makes his role in A Star is Born all the more ironic) and he brings plenty of charm and easy-going likability to his role of Colin Bates, the DEA agent hot on the heels of Earl and the Mexican drug cartel for whom Earl works. On paper, there’s not much there to his character but Cooper injects real vitality into the part.
Most importantly, though, Clint Eastwood may be nearing ninety but he remains an astonishingly magnetic screen presence. Earl is the only character in the whole film written with any depth or complexity (which is just as well as it’s his story) and a gruff but wryly funny Eastwood makes him a character that’s surprisingly easy to root for, no matter how much of an ass he is. If only the film around him was anywhere as endearing, as interesting or as strangely alive as Eastwood’s Earl Stone.
As it is, it’s just about passable but with a sharper script and less staid direction, the Mule may well have been something worthwhile; something more than a footnote in the long and varied oeuvre of one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actor/directors.