Dir: Clint Eastwood; Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Dianne Wiest, Andy Garcia, Taissa Farmiga. Cert 15, 116 mins.
You can see why Warner Bros so cherishes Clint Eastwood. Even now, in his late 80s, the venerable director/star remains one of the studio’s most bankable talents. Everything he touches turns a profit. Last year’s The 15:17 to Paris, one of his flimsiest efforts, grossed $60m at the box office in spite of lukewarm reviews. His new feature is much better and more substantial.
Apparently, although this is hard to credit, the film is based on a true story. There really was a 90-year-old drug mule nicknamed Tata who worked for El Chapo. This is a thriller involving Mexican cartels and DEA agents but it is also a mediation on ageing, an elegiac road movie and a family melodrama. Eastwood plays the lead and still steals scenes from under the noses of younger actors like Bradley Cooper and Andy Garcia.
First seen in his straw hat, it's as if Dirty Harry has turned into Percy Thrower. Eastwood’s character, Earl Stone, is a horticulturalist so obsessed with his orchids that he is all but estranged from his family. He is competing in flower shows when he should be attending family functions. We glimpse Earl briefly in 2005, prosperous but aware that his small scale business will struggle in a new online world. Flash forward 12 years to 2017 and sure enough, as Earl grumbles, the internet has “ruined” everything. His house is about to be foreclosed on. His money has run out. No one in his family except his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) has any time for him.
Eastwood’s performance is very enjoyable in a mischievous, Grampa Simpson-like way. He shuffles around, pretending to be far more dim-witted and grumpy than he really is. In fact, he is a womaniser who enjoys buying strangers drinks in bars. Like the actor himself, Earl also loves his jazz, crooning Fifties torch songs and country music, all of which feature prominently on the soundtrack. He has a dry, fatalistic sense of humour and knows how to trade on his own charm. “You’d do a great Jimmy Stewart,” someone says to him.
Earl may be in danger of losing his home but he still has his beaten-up old truck. His driving license is clean and he has never had a parking or speeding ticket. The film makes a big fuss of his credentials behind the wheel because these are what qualify him to be a “mule” for the Sinaloa cartel. Earl can barely use a cell phone and doesn’t know how to text but he is a very reliable courier. He chooses not to look inside the bags he drives to Chicago but surely knows the money left for him in the glove compartment isn’t for delivering pecan nuts.
While Earl is transporting narcotics across America, DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), who has just arrived in Chicago, is looking to make a “big splash” by arresting a drugs baron. Bates is like a younger version of Earl, someone who puts his work ahead of his family. Their stories run in parallel. It is inevitable the two men will meet.
Together with his partner Trevino (Michael Peña), Bates is closing in on the cartel. The cops have no idea, though, that the mule delivering record quantities of cocaine into Chicago each month is an OAP.
Some of the comedy here is very obvious. Eastwood milks the humour out of the culture clash between the folksy old timer and the tattoo covered, gun-toting Mexican drug dealers. Earl charms them as he charms everybody else. He uses the money he makes to support his family and friends. If he sees a family stranded by the side of the road because of a flat tyre, he will stop to help. If one of his favourite fast food joints is nearby, he will drive out of his way for a pulled pork sandwich.
The sexual politics of the film are determinedly old-fashioned. There are no strong female characters other than Earl’s ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) but she is given little screen time. Eastwood – or at least the character he is playing – isn’t interested in political correctness. He makes remarks which border on casual racism when he meets African-Americans or Mexicans.
There is a strangely sleazy interlude when he visits hedonistic cartel boss Laton (Andy Garcia) in Mexico and takes full advantage of the booze and sex on offer. He is supposed to be 90 but his libido is undiminished. At his ripe old age, Eastwood is still doing sex scenes with much younger women and it doesn’t look pretty. The portrayal of cartel members comes close to caricature.
Where The Mule does have a kick is in its more intimate moments, for example the scenes Eastwood shares with Wiest and Cooper or in his encounters with his granddaughter.
But in the latter stages, the film grows shamelessly sentimental. We begin to realise the sheer perversity of a story which presents an elderly drug dealer as a figure of admiration and sympathy. Nick Schenk’s otherwise witty screenplay overdoes the flower metaphors. Earl is a “late bloomer” who eventually learns that he needs to devote as much time and effort to his family as to his garden business or his drug running.
This is the director/star his most amiable. It’s as digressive in its storytelling as its lead character is in his route planning but it is also enjoyable and full of human insight. The late Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira made films well into his 90s. Few would complain if Eastwood did the same.