Needing Work, a Man Gets Behind the Wheel for a Cartel

By Vincent Abbatecola

Over the last several decades, Clint Eastwood has proven himself to be one of the hardest-working individuals in cinema. Between directing and acting, he’s made a career for himself that has helped him become a legend. As he’s grown older, it seems like his work ethic has reached new heights because we saw him release two movies in in 2006, 2008, 2014, and this year. While the quality of these movies has been a little inconsistent during that time, Eastwood still shows that he’s in a league of his own when it comes to filmmaking.

With his latest movie, “The Mule,” a true-story crime drama, Eastwood isn’t just the director, but he also returns in front of the camera for his first performance since his work in Robert Lorenz’s 2012 sports drama, “Trouble with the Curve.” Despite the movie’s flaws, “The Mule” is a testament to Eastwood’s enduring talents as an actor and filmmaker.

In 2017, Earl Stone (Eastwood, whose character is based on Leo Sharp) is an out-of-work horticulturist and veteran. Broke and estranged from his family, Earl’s at a loss at what to do. Desperate for money, he decides to become a mule for a Mexican drug cartel, transporting cocaine throughout Illinois. While he’s successful at first, the DEA begins to catch onto his activity.

While Eastwood’s character is pretty much the same as his Walt Kowalski character in “Gran Torino,” it’s still an endearing performance of a man driven to do something dangerous as a way to get by, a role that has a little more dramatic depth than Eastwood’s role as Walt. While his role in “The Mule” is the typical man-puts-work-in-front-of-his-family individual, he brings both a ruggedness and a grace to the part that draws you into Earl’s dilemmas and shows the regret and emotional strain with which Earl is burdened after having his family shun him. Despite all of this, Eastwood also has several comical moments with his character’s no-filter persona. And, although a lot of his humorous moments of Earl being cantankerous is something that we’ve seen before, the delivery of his dialogue makes for a wittily unapologetic figure.

While the supporting cast is stacked with talented actors and actresses, such as Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, and Laurence Fishburne as DEA agents, Dianne Wiest as Earl’s ex-wife, Andy García as a cartel boss, and Taissa Farmiga as Earl’s granddaughter, they’re not given much material to work with, but they do their best with what they have. However, Wiest is given a chance to exemplify her established talents in a pivotal scene in the film’s last half hour.

The screenplay by Nick Schenk (who wrote “Gran Torino”), which is based on Sam Dolnick’s “The New York Times” article, “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule,” takes a bit of time to pick up, as the first half of the movie is a little repetitive with Earl going on his runs and the DEA agents having frequent meetings with an informer, and it doesn’t offer as much apprehension as a scenario like this should. But, the story picks up in the second half once the DEA gets closer to catching Earl and some shifts occur within the cartel. Between Earl’s numerous drug runs and the issues with his family, Schenk dedicates enough time to both aspects, and this keeps us gripped in Earl’s journey and the tough decisions that he has to make.

Similar to some of Eastwood’s other movies, the direction doesn’t have much that’s memorable in terms of a visual style. But, at the same time, this seems to harmonize with Eastwood’s rough-and-tough personality, as he takes an approach that’s more grounded and to-the-point, a method in which he seems to be focused on just telling the story in a straightforward way, knowing that the events of the narrative themselves are enough to create tension. All of this shows a confidence in his directing abilities that has grown out of decades of working in film.

While “The Mule” doesn’t rank among Eastwood’s better movies, it’s still a worthy entry in his filmography and shows that, even at 88 years old, he still has a lot to offer.

Grade: B