It is amazing that Sir Eastwood is still running strong at the age of 88. His presence on the screen, while obviously not the same as what he brought to films like Dirty Harry or The Beguiled, is still as assertive and thoroughly believable as he was decades ago. His character in The Mule is brought to life in a fashion that few are capable of, and certainly none over the age of 80. We do need to admit though that the quality of his films are beginning to waver.
Sully was solid, albeit mostly due to to Tom Hanks, but last year’s The 15:19 to Paris was a film so bad it had me very, very harshly suggesting Clint should hang up the gloves. Personally, I took that back rather quickly, but it was a worrying indication of what was to come.
The Mule is certainly an improvement. Interestingly though, it is the sixth consecutive film in which he has chosen a true story to bring to the screen. This can be interpreted in many ways, but a Mystic River or Gran Torino is not on the horizon.
Given the title, it is obvious what the film will be about, and a large portion of the run-time revolves around this basic concept. We watch Earl Stone driving for the cartel, each trip with a needless title of ‘first ‘drive’ – and these numbers make their way into double digits. Needless to say, there is a lot of driving.
Running parallel to this is the oddly jarring arrival of a special agent to the DEA (Bradley Cooper), whose past credentials aren’t explained at all. Confusingly, he is immediately placed on the case. These two characters are the centre of the story, but the see-saw of character development is remarkably far from level as Bradley Cooper runs on auto-pilot, creating a generic character whose personality can be summarized with literally one word.
Opposite this, Eastwood is perhaps too good as Earl Stone’s personality steadily grows on the audience and within the film. Given he is the title of the movie, it makes sense that his character is the core, but as his story plays parallel to Coopers, the difference is overwhelming. The introduction to film is also about Earl, whose business went under thanks to his disgust with technology and therefore the internet. This story is about the character of Earl Stone, following his actions and reactions within a situation he does not belong in.
We are given a glimpse as to how his family sees him, as he is disgraced by his ex-wife when arriving at his granddaughters celebration for her upcoming wedding: all his belongings in the back of his truck and his motive for being there challenged. The assumption, probably correct, being that he needs a place to stay and while it is clear he loves his granddaughter, his ex makes sure he is not welcome. This neatly leads to the offering of a job by one of the guests from the party, where he is told he simply has to drive. Nothing else, just drive. Given this was a major part of his last job, he takes the offer. As a white male with no criminal record or even one driving ticket, he seems perfect for the job.
At 90 years old, when he realises what his cargo is, he continues to deliver it. Whether he does this out of fear from the cartel or as a personal challenge we never learn, but the more we get to know him, the more this answer seems obvious.
The cartel quickly learn he perhaps isn’t the perfect man for the job, as his behaviour doesn’t quite click with their expectations. Humorously, he doesn’t seem to care. Subsequently he is soon given a handler who follows him on each drive. He has now been told to keep on schedule, a schedule he was given with a gun to his chest. Being a war veteran, this doesn’t seem to faze him; at one point he stops to help a family who are stuck with a flat tire, schedule be damned.
When circumstances regarding his employers change and the stakes are increased, we again learn more about this man’s character (despite the complete lack of tension), and all the traits that have been added at a deliberate pace are realised perfectly by this veteran of the game, creating a very fascinating man.
He is however is surrounded by an average movie. Bradley Cooper’s agent becomes increasingly frustrated, unable to find the driver responsible for increasing amounts of cocaine. The film soon becomes very predictable as it seems to be relying solely on the character study of Earl Stone. Working with a rather standard script, only Clint could have brought this character to life, and he does it with precision. If only everything else could have been even close to his performance. We can take solace in the fun music Earl listens to as he drives, not to mention some of his alterations of the lyrics. But there really is not much else of value here.
Not unlike Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky, who also played a 90 year old in a character study of a very different (and superior) nature, Clint defies his age giving us a near perfect show. However, seven of his last eight films have been ‘based on a true story’, and one can’t help but selfishly wish he would collaborate with a talented writer/director, allowing him to focus solely on his acting before he passes, as he still has it, though only in front of the camera and not behind. Time will tell what he decides to do, but the fact he is still working is admirable in itself. Here he is the only one to bloom in a forgettable film, complete with stereotypical tattooed cartel members and Cooper’s one-note DEA officer. Despite playing an opposing character to Clint, his DEA agent is flatter than a pancake and thinner than a shadow.
A shame, as Earl Stone was fun to hang out with. Half a sixer
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