“Make a big splash,” says DEA Agent (Laurence Fishburne) to subordinate special agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) when discussing their plans to take on the Midwest drug cartel in The Mule. Making a big splash isn’t anything new for these acclaimed actors, nor is it for Clint Eastwood, the film’s lead actor and director. Yet, is the big splash of The Mule a belly flop or a cannon ball? The movie seems to be closer to the latter than the former, but like its driver Eastwood, The Mule more often than not gets sidetracked along the way.
The Mule follows Earl Stone, a Korean War veteran turned horticulturist, who has fallen on hard times. Much like the film’s iconic director, Earl has never been one to have a B-plan. Facing foreclosure of his farm, Earl’s time is no longer absorbed by work. He then seizes what he views as an excellent opportunity to visit his estranged family at his granddaughter’s engagement party. A heartfelt reunion it is not, as Earl gets ensnared by a party guest into being a drug mule for the Mexican cartel. Before long, Earl transforms into a drug running pro and views the work as a way to win back his daughter and ex-wife. The challenge is to evade the DEA and avoid getting killed, a common occurrence in the life of a drug mule.
The movie’s plot, loosely based on the real life story of deceased criminal Leo Sharp, is a crime fiction déjà vu. It’s a cliché family drama, with a police procedural side story, and a cartel double cross that’s lazy and obvious, as screenwriter Nick Schenk squeezes the last juicy pulp goodness out of a story akin to Breaking Bad and The Wire. Eastwood has assembled a substantial arsenal of actors to get the most out of narrative threads that have reached their limit.
Since Eastwood’s directorial debut 47 years ago, actors and critics alike have often viewed him as an actor’s director, and rightfully so. Eastwood has an uncanny ability to guide actors, and to evoke great performances. The Mule is no exception. Even though their time on screen together is short, the chemistry between Cooper and Eastwood feels genuine, constituting the best part of the film. Cooper brings natural confidence and ease to his acting. Even when playing a generic DEA agent, you can’t help but love the actor, in spite of the limitations present within the story and script.
The same cannot be said of the conflicted relationship between Earl and his estranged daughter, Iris (Alison Eastwood). Eastwood and his real-life daughter attempt to bring the same agency and tension that was there between Million Dollar Baby’s Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) and Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), but Schenk’s script insufficiently details their backstory — by the time these plot threads reach their conclusion, it’s time to move on. The real bright spot of the family drama comes from the quarreling and heart to heart moments shared between Eastwood and Dianne Wiest, who plays Earl’s ex-wife Mary.
The second act introduction of cartel handler Julio (Ignacio Serricchio) is when The Mule comes alive. The relationship between Earl and Julio begins with hatred, but it ultimately transforms into a form of mutual respect. Besides hinting at the communication and social ills between their respective cultures, the two men make for an excellent odd couple, and this adds some much needed dry humor.
In an interview with Cinema Blend, Eastwood states that he found Leo Sharp’s motivations to be such an odd mystery that he felt compelled to try to fill those in as he assumed the role of Earl Stone. While it’s fun to watch Eastwood’s loose interpretation, the story never feels as complex or daring as his previous Korean War veteran role of Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino (2008).
Overall, The Mule is somewhat flat yet satisfactory. Missing from this film is the crisp cinematography of past Eastwood greats. The pacing drags on in a generic, linear manner, lacking much excitement. Nevertheless, it is far from the worst crime thriller that Eastwood has directed — that honor still goes to The Gauntlet (1977). It’s also not Eastwood’s worst acting job — see his performance as journalist Steve Everett in True Crime (1999). However, The Mule will not be remembered as one of the Eastwood classics. In all likelihood, it will be boxed in with two superior Eastwood films as part of a collector’s pack. The Mule may ultimately be viewed as a film with a run of the mill script featuring a lead actor who isn’t as daring as he was, only four years ago, when he made American Sniper (2014).
It’s nice to see that Eastwood still has his acting chops intact. I do believe and hope that he has one last great role within him after this. Yet, if he wants to enable audiences to experience the same transcendence and empathy that they enjoyed decades ago, he may have to find someone other than himself to take a turn in the director’s chair.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.