I like Clint Eastwood. Even now at 88 years you can still see how much of a bad ass the guy is purely from the expression in his face. Even when Mexican cartel thugs are threatening him with guns and patronisingly calling him “Papi” throughout The Mule, something about it seems strange because it is hard to believe that anybody could look into those eyes and not crumple.
I was disappointed with this movie. The premise is something that has merit; a cantankerous old horticulturalist becomes a drug mule for the cartel. The problem is, the film can’t decide either way as to whether they want to play it as a fish out of water, comedic piece or a gritty, Scarface-esque thriller. The end result is something in the middle, not enough either way to call it a success. Even if the script and direction were average, if the performances had been knock outs then the whole package might have been redeemed. They’re not though. The film drastically underutilises the talent in this cast; Eastwood is surly and mean eyed just like Eastwood always is and Bradley Cooper’s character, Special Agent Bates is so underdeveloped that it seems a waste to have Cooper in the role when any cast member from NCIS could have done the exact same thing.
More than anything else, the film just seemed lazy to me and is filled with painfully convenient plot devices. Earl Stone (Eastwood) somehow doesn’t realise that he’s trafficking cocaine for until his third trip despite the fact that each time he’s picked up his delivery from four tattooed, angry Mexican men with guns. It’s thrown in there that Earl was a Korean war veteran for no discernible reason at all; it doesn’t bring anything to the character other than to serve the image of Eastwood as a tough old man. His family all hate him because he has always chosen career over relationships, yet he’s so broke that he has to continue on as a drug mule because otherwise the county will take his house. The scenes with his family are perfunctory and forced, even reducing screen legend Dianne Weist to a cardboard cutout of a character who screams at Earl for not being a good husband or father.
Ultimately though, all that could have been forgivable if the film had just provided some cool moments that Clint Eastwood movies usually do so well! I was waiting for a shoot out scene with the cartels that never came, there was little or no tension created throughout the film and there is no exploration at all for why he has become the bitter old man he is other than a weird dialogue between him and his ex wife where he says that he always loved flowers because they were unique and deserving of his love. There are some funny moments where Earl interacts with lesbians and black people, showing the disparity between him and a world he just doesn’t understand anymore, but even those weren’t as satisfying as they potentially could have been. I think unsatisfying is probably the best way to describe The Mule; it had all the makings of something poignant and gripping, but never really allows itself to be either.
By Jock Lehman