The Script Has Its Flaws;
And Eastwood Brings Nothing New;
Solid, Not Special.
Like his character in this film, Earl Stone, age isn’t slowing Clint Eastwood down at all. At almost 90 years old, this is his 38th helmed production and second film of this year alone from the director’s chair. And, also like his character here, you probably shouldn’t go into it expecting any new tricks from this old dog, if history has been any indication. You’re getting the gruff, old man act (that, at this point, is clearly not an act but semi autobiographical at worst) with steady, reliable camerawork and a “less is more” approach. Everything about this film has his name stamped all over it, and with a better script, could have been more than just a solid, end of the year entry in a very busy release schedule.
The assembled cast is good and on an individual level they all do well with what they are given, though I found the script to be the film’s weak point. It’s not that the dialogue is noticeably bad, but certain characters are very underdeveloped and leave the film missing a lot of impact. This was most noticeable for DEA agent Colin Banks, played by Bradley Cooper, who feels like he has very little screen time to make room for more shots of Eastwood driving and lamenting this new generation of Americans (again coming across as his own real sentiments). Given no reason to invest in him, you wind up rooting for the drug mule to get away with everything, which feels like an odd choice because he was never forced into this life. Are we supposed to side with a relationship of convenience simply because the script all but ignores the law side of it’s own equation? Writer Nick Schenk also makes some odd choices throughout the film (which can add to a nice air of unpredictability, but occasionally left me scratching my head. It does, however, do some things very well. Not only does it have a great (and often dry) sense of humor, but it also paints a vivid picture of an old man desperate to put his newfound money to good use by fixing what’s broken in his life (especially that which he is responsible for breaking). Stone’s arc takes him from selfish to selfless (in a sense, anyway) and as the story wears on, a lifetime of regret is all over his face. These expressions are something Eastwood excels at, even if we have been down this road as often as Earl has had his ancient pickup’s oil changed.
I wish the film had dug into some subjects deeper. Does the DEA care about the communities affected by these drug runs, or is it really about nothing more than arrest numbers? Their desire to capture the mule rang hollow, as though any random arrest would have pleased the bosses. As such, Cooper and Laurence Fishburne come off as unfinished versions of themselves. Some of the family scenes don’t ring entirely true, but that is more to do with the nature of the relationships than the acting.
There were some shots I really liked, and the relationships that developed between Stone and some of his cartel contacts were often quite funny and heartfelt, despite a casual, “old timey” racism that hung around Earl at all times. His heart may not have started off in the right place, but it ended up there. And while that may sound predictable, it makes sense for someone so close to the end of their life. Overall, this is a film that could have accomplished more, but seems fine with just being solid. There is plenty to like about The Mule, if not a lot to love.