THE MULE, Clint Eastwood’s 49th leading role as a star, his 38th as director, grossed $174,804,000 worldwide in 2018, notching 30th place in the States: pretty good for a character drama, with no superheroes, aliens or monsters, starring an 88-year-old geezer. Then again, Clint isn’t your typical octogenarian, and the real-life guy he played didn’t spend his ‘Golden Years’ nodding off while watching reruns of Rawhide. *
“The only people who want to live to 100 are 99–year-olds.”
When elderly horticulturist ‘Earl Stone’ (Clint) has his home foreclosed on, he’s not just homeless but broke and alone. The alone part is his own fault, having a history of letting his family down in favor of his own pursuits. The broke part gets fixed when he agrees to do some ask-no-questions delivery runs for some obviously shady dudes. Wising up, Earl realizes he’s hauling drugs for a Mexican cartel, but the job’s a cinch and the money is extraordinary. As ‘Tata‘, the frank but amiable old vet is amusing as well as useful to the cartel, and Earl does good things for family and friends with his payoffs. What’s the problem? The DEA seems to think there is one, and agents try to track and catch the mystery man. Then cartel hierarchy changes (de pronto, as is often the case) and Earl’s caught in a vise.
The screenplay by Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) was based on “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule”, an article by Sam Dolnick for The New York Times, inspired by the true story of WW2 vet Leo Sharp (1924-2016), who for ten years was the world’s oldest and most prolific drug courier. The script compresses the timeline, changes names and takes some of the usual accepted liberties, and Clint gets to play his most interesting character in years, delivering one his most relaxed and likable performances. As ever, his direction is assured, and he marshals a good cast at his disposal, including a swell team of serious but laid back feds in the able hands of Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña.
Handled poorly and this could have been embarrassing (make Earl too cute or cranky), but for the most part it works smoothly, done with restraint, balancing humor and threat off the incongruity factor. The family biz is a bit iffy (that angle was fictionalized for the script), but the essential cartel & cops material is carried off well. By updating the story, with Earl becoming a Korean War vet, the more dramatic real-life heroism Leo Sharp displayed in WW2 was left out. As in the movie, he really was a big deal in the flower growing business before becoming a legend in that other plant-related but less floral enterprise. More lucrative, but the competition is likely to see you cultivate daisies in a more intimate fashion .
Produced for $50,000,000. With Ignacio Serricchio, Dianne Wiest, Taissa Farmiga, Andy Garcia (nice to have him back), Laurence Fishburne, Robert LaSardo, Noel G, Alison Eastwood (daughter plays daughter), Eugene Cordero, Clifton Collins Jr. and Richard Herd. 116 minutes.
* “Golden Years”: can someone please throttle whoever came up with that condescending barf pill? Perhaps retired Inspector Harry Callahan could track down the snotnose ad-agency dickshine who coined it and unmake their day.