Somehow, at age 88, Clint Eastwood still manages to crank out a movie every year or two. It’s as if Father Time is as scared of the star’s once-famous Dirty Harry squint as his low-life cinematic adversaries used to be. Still, he hasn’t appeared on screen in one of his own films since 2008’s Gran Torino. So it comes as a bit of a shock when we first set eyes on Eastwood in his new film, The Mule. His athletically lanky frame has become a bit more fragile and hunched, his gait a bit slower, and his one-of-a-kind voice raspier and more halting. But his crotchety rascal charisma remains undimmed. He’s still the same true-blue movie star that audiences have always followed just about anywhere.
Based on Sam Dolnick’s New York Times Magazine article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule,” Eastwood’s latest film tells the unlikely true story of Earl Stone – a divorced Peoria, Illinois horticulturist who’s been lapped by 21st-century progress and seen his small garden-patch of the American Dream turn arid. He’s a crusty, headstrong guy who spouts mildly racist jokes, but thanks to the frisky twinkle in his eye you never really believe that he means them. He just likes winding people up, convinced that his advanced age has earned him the right to be a cranky fossil. It’s as if his AARP card gives him diplomatic immunity.
Earl has never been a good father or husband – his life on the road traveling to flower trade shows where he backslaps with his geezer pals never allowed him to be home much. But with the end of the road in sight and his business foreclosed upon, it’s time for this old dog to make amends. He wants to start by buying all of the booze for the wedding of his granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga). His ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) knows that it’s just one of many promises Earl won’t be able to keep. At the rehearsal dinner, a stranger who hears Earl talking about his spotless driving record tells him that he can earn quick, easy money by driving his rusty, old Ford pick-up to Mexico carrying a deliberately vague package that Earl is either too naïve or desperate to inquire about. Earl agrees. And at that moment, he becomes an unwitting mule for one of Mexico’s biggest and most deadly drug cartels.
Running kilos of cocaine from south of the border turns out to be a cinch. After all, who’d expect a senior citizen who looks like Clint Eastwood to be trafficking blow? Certainly not Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena, who play DEA agents under pressure to stop the flood of drugs coming into the U.S. Cooper, who’s riding high at the moment with A Star is Born, doesn’t get much of a role here. You get the sense that maybe he just jumped at the chance to reteam with his American Sniper director just for the fun of it and be reminded what a laid-back production run by an old pro felt like. Laurence Fishburne, who gets even less to do as Cooper’s DEA boss, is further proof of the caliber of actors willing to swallow their egos to play in Eastwood’s chill sandbox.
Despite some of The Mule’s darker, more morally thickety themes, it’s a surprisingly fun and mellow movie. Especially when Eastwood, driving bricks of uncut nose candy down the highway, sings along to country and western songs like “I’ve Been Everywhere” on the radio. As Earl’s friends and family fall on hard times, he takes more and more trips for the cartel, becoming its most prized mule and earning him a face-to-face with its ruthless leader (Andy Garcia, stealing his small handful of scenes) at his bacchanalian villa full of gyrating women in bikinis, which even Earl can’t deny. Even after he catches on to what he’s transporting, Earl’s willing to keep going because he wants his family to love him again – and, obviously, because Garcia’s henchmen will put a bullet in his head, too. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before the law will catch up with him.
With a lean and economical script by Nick Schenk (Gran Torino, Narcos) that refuses to judge Earl as harshly as some in the audience will no doubt want, The Mule fits the 88-year-old Eastwood perfectly. Not just because there probably aren’t many roles for actors of his age out there these days, but also because its lack of judgment makes sense for a star who’s always been as willing to play anti-heroes as heroes. Eastwood probably just knows that Earl’s story is a great one and that he’s just the man to tell it. He happens to be right on both counts. B