By John H. Foote
Released late last year as a potential Oscar contender, The Mule received middling reviews and no love from the Academy at all. Considering the adoration they have showered upon Actor-Director Clint Eastwood, I must admit to some surprise. Yes, I was shocked Eastwood was not nominated for Best Actor for his grumpy racist in Gran Torino (2008), because it was a great performance. But as Earl, the 90-year old drug runner, while Eastwood is amusing, it is not a great performance and seems, at times, to be playing to award voters.
Twice a Best Director winner, two other times nominated, twice nominated for Best Actor, five of his films Best Picture nominees with two of them winning, Eastwood has been treated very well by the Academy. If they did not nominate him for Gran Torino, there is no chance a nomination will come for anything else, not even a sentimental nod for The Mule.
Considering that, at 88, Eastwood is still acting and directing is miraculous, but that he is still doing strong, vital work is extraordinary.
The Mule is not among his greatest five films, but it is a rock-solid story, told with sparse dialogue and imagery by the director. There are a lot of scenes of him driving, singing along to the radio, scowling at other drivers, all creative ways to drive the narrative, though the film needs a jump start at times. While it is thrilling to see Eastwood so late in life portraying such a cantankerous old boy, it is nothing, really, we did not see in either Gran Torino or Trouble with the Curve (2013). Earl (Eastwood) is an award-winning gardener who has sacrificed his marriage, children and grandchildren for his work, and though widely regarded as a fine gardener, he is not especially well liked.
When a family member finds a job for him, he finds himself running cocaine for a dangerous Mexican cartel, who pay him a fortune as one of their mules, soon to be their best mule. In his nineties, with a clean driving record, a Korean War veteran and no criminal record, Earl is perfect as a mule because he is the last person anyone would suspect of such criminal behaviour. The more runs he completes, the fatter the envelope of cash left in his car.
When his wife is stricken with cancer, dying, he goes to her with 12 million dollars of cocaine in his truck, sending the cartel into panic, and his handlers frantic to find him. Equally interested in him is an American DEA agent, portrayed with relentless intensity by Bradley Cooper. The DEA just want to arrest him, the cartel wants him dead.
Eastwood gives a surprising light, funny performance as an old boy who falls ass backwards into cash and cannot quite believe it. Earl enjoys his new-found wealth and puts his money to good use right away, enjoying some booze and call girls along the way. So impressive is he at his job, the Mexican drug lord he works for asks to meet him! But when the cartel exchanges hands, violently, Earl is suddenly in peril.
When a family emergency takes him off the radar, the drug handlers freak because he has 12 million dollars worth of cocaine in his truck, and the DEA are on the highways. The cartel wants him dead, the DEA just want him arrested to cease the flow of cocaine.
Who gets to Earl first?
Eastwood directs the film with a breezy pace despite the subject matter, though as the noose tightens around Earl it becomes a taut thriller. Eastwood has a ball with the part, not quite grasping that once he delivers a single order, money or not, the cartel owns him. Though it evokes memories of racist Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino (2008), he shades Earl differently, lighter, with lovely comedic touches.
Bradley Cooper brings intensity and tenacity to his dogged agent, though Michael Pena exists only so Cooper has someone to talk too. A sadly underwritten part for such a fine actor. Two-time Academy Award winner Dianne Weist shines as Earl’s ex-wife, dying of cancer, which she keeps from him. I would watch this gifted actress read the phone book and the banter between she and Earl feels real, old, as though they had been doing it for years. Wonderful to see her doing substantial work again.
In the end the film is an enjoyable two hours, not the best from Eastwood but not his weakest either. Well worth it for Eastwood and Weist, they make magic together.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”