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The Mule

Posted December 16, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

Whoo boy. A movie produced and directed by Clint Eastwood — a controversial filmmaker for his explicitly libertarian movies — that features Mexican drug cartels. In this political climate.

…Excuse me while I get a fifth of dark rum ready. And a massive fire extinguisher for the comments. I’m probably going to need them.

The Mule loosely adapts the story of Leo Sharp, a WWII vet and a world-renowned horticulturist before his business went bust. At which point, he worked for 10 years for the Sinaloa Drug Cartel as the world’s oldest drug mule (That’s not comedic writing, folks, he really is the oldest drug mule on record.) until he was finally arrested in October of 2011. However, he only served a year in prison before his compassionate release in 2015 and his death in 2016 at the age of 92. By comparison, Earl Stone (played by Eastwood) was a veteran of the Korean War, and his story plays out over only a few months in 2017.

So, let’s recap what we’ve got here.

  • Based on or “inspired by” a true story? Check.
  • The protagonist gets obscenely wealthy through some criminal enterprise? Check.
  • The story ends with the protagonist going down for his crimes and losing everything? Check.
  • But do we get a “party” scene involving drugs, alcohol, loud music, flashy clothes, and/or gorgeous women at least partially nude? Believe it or not, that’s a check.

Yes, gentle readers, we’ve got another entry in the increasingly popular “Filthy, Stinking Rich” subgenre. Trouble is, we don’t get any of the social commentary, shock value, or gratuitous thrills that makes the new genre anywhere near worthwhile. Even during the party scene, it’s just one ass shot after another, and a bunch of jokes about how Earl’s heart is at risk of giving out. It takes a lot to make a drug-fueled threesome so totally boring, but here we are.

Of course, the other crucial factor is that in the other noteworthy entries (The Wolf of Wall StreetWar DogsAmerican Made, White Boy Rick, etc.), the main characters all had some fire to them. They may have been immoral criminals, but they were so highly motivated that the film was worth watching just to see what they did next. Compare that to Earl, who’s driving around drugs because… well, he doesn’t have anything else to do with what little time he’s got left. Plus, if he can use the money to help out his family and his community, so much the better.

I really, really wish Eastwood had kept to his word and hung it up after Gran Torino. That was the last time (Ten years ago!) when I saw the man with any kind of fire, and watching him without that is just heartbreaking. To wit: When he was trading offensive jokes with his Hmong neighbors in Gran Torino, the energy behind that banter was genuinely funny and humanizing. Compare that to this picture, in which the exchanges — most especially in his exchanges with a lesbian biker gang and a black family stranded on the side of the road — are so limp and lifeless.

Then again, Eastwood continues to make racially insensitive comments while scowling at cell phones and shaking his fist at these damned kids who can’t do anything or enjoy any kind of life without the Interwebs. And he continues to get away with it because of all the other characters poking fun at the cracker from the less enlightened age, so old and feeble that he can’t even spell “Wi-Fi”. It was problematic in Gran Torino (Again, that was ten freaking years ago!) and it’s still problematic here.

Easily Clint Eastwood’s biggest problem as a filmmaker was — and continues to be — his complete and total rejection of nuance. Everything has to be black and white, with no room for doubt as to what is good and what is bad. Emotions are flipped like switches. All of the characters are completely two-dimensional, which in turn leads to simplistic and predictable stories. This is a filmmaker with nothing interesting, relevant, new, or intelligent to say, except to ramble on about the damn stupid kids today.

That said, I will give Eastwood some slack with regards to the Mexican drug dealers. For one thing, the protagonist of this real-life story ran drugs for the Sinaloa cartel, so this was always going to be baked into the premise to some extent. Perhaps more importantly, Eastwood and his colleagues make a very clear statement about what is good and what is bad, and it’s got nothing to do with race.

Time and time again, the message is hammered home that work is not as important as family. That money can buy anything except time to savor life and be there for our loved ones. As such, our drug-dealing criminals aren’t evil because they’re brown, they’re evil when — not because, but when, that’s a crucial distinction — they see their workers as disposable pawns rather than human beings with their own lives and loved ones.

Of course, the filmmakers never stop to think about the lives being destroyed by all the addictive drugs getting shipped around. Or how the Internet has helped us conserve time by moving things faster, to say nothing of all the worldwide social connections getting built online. Oh, and it takes a lot of gall for a Boomer to tell those of my generation “Don’t work so hard, go spend time with your family,” when expenses are so high and wages are so low that we have to work at least two jobs to make ends meet.

Like I said, Eastwood’s not one for nuance.

As for the rest of the cast, they’re just kinda there. Dianne Wiest is on hand as Earl’s ex-wife, and her performance is nowhere near as memorable as the material demanded. Earl’s daughter is played by Alison Eastwood (yes, Clint’s actual daughter), but the character is so flimsy that she’s got nothing to work with. Ditto for Taissa Farmiga, who at least makes an effort of salvaging the crap she’s given. Michael Pena and Clifton Collins Jr. once again serve as reliable support players. Laurence Fishburne and Andy Garcia phone it in for another paycheck.

Easily the MVP of the supporting cast is Bradley Cooper, who at least has the charisma to effectively sell a hotshot DEA agent. More importantly, his two scenes opposite Eastwood are hands-down the best in the film. It bears remembering that Eastwood directed Cooper’s last Oscar-nominated performance, and Cooper made his own directorial debut with a project that Eastwood initially developed. The two have had such a long and storied working history that they’ve clearly built a solid rapport, and watching them play off each other is something wonderful.

Overall, The Mule is only passable, which is way less than a film of this pedigree deserves. This movie is entirely void of anything new, creative, compelling, intelligent, or beyond his narrow octagenarian white male viewpoint. I’m sure the movie is well-intentioned and there are a lot of talented actors in the cast, but it’s all for naught when neither Eastwood the lead actor nor Eastwood the director have enough energy to kick the film into any kind of gear.

In such a packed season of awards contenders, it’ll take a lot more than this to merit a recommendation.