Clint Eastwood’s The Mule makes a fascinating companion piece to Robert Redford’s recent swan song, The Old Man and the Gun. Both films center on crinkly geriatrics who stroll their way through a career in crime. The two movies differ greatly in tone, however, and much of this derives from the lead actors, who imbue their personalties onto the story itself. The Old Man and the Gun twinkles with Redford’s ageless charisma, while The Mule feels muted and melancholic, a result of Eastwood’s iconic glowering and grumbling. His presence alone elevates this flawed film, although it still can’t quite overcome some disjointed storytelling and the underuse of an all-star cast.
Like Redford’s character, Eastwood’s Earl Stone has lived long enough to look back with a deep, frustrated sigh. He travels the country selling award-winning flowers, drinking and flirting and generally being a horticultural rock star. (I’ll just assume that all traveling horticulturists live like The Rolling Stones.) Meanwhile, Earl’s family sternly notes his absence at every wedding, graduation, and anniversary. When he does wander into the frame, his ex-wife and daughter greet him with seething contempt. His flower business sunders in the wake of Internet competition, opening a potential avenue to buy back the affection of his family: Earl cheerfully takes a job as a fastidious drug mule for a Mexican cartel. He ambles into a garage filled with drug dealers like Dagwood Bumstead arriving at work. (“Hey! How’s your nephew doing?” He asks one of them.)
From here, the film settles into a meandering second act. We follow Earl on his increasingly lucrative drops across the country. Many of these scenes consist of beautiful countryside blurring past and Eastwood belting vintage tunes with the radio. As a music aficionado, this sequence musta been a labor of love for Ol’ Clint, but it also highlights the movie’s languid pacing. Some tightening here might’ve given an already deliberate story a little more bounce.
The movie’s most egregious crime comes by squandering its phenomenal cast. Bradley Cooper, who projects the casual charm of a true movie star, has almost nothing to do as a resourceful DEA agent. His character stares grimly at reports and snaps endless surveillance pictures of drug dealers. His few scenes with Eastwood spark with real chemistry and remind us what this movie could’ve been. Lawrence Fishburne pops up as a frustrated bureaucrat whose sole function is to hassle his subordinates. And, wait, is that Andy Garcia as the cartel kingpin? Yup, he shoots skeet with a gold-plated shotgun and issues distracted orders through a tightly-clamped stogie. Only Dianne Wiest gets any real play as the ex-wife whose reservoir of patience and empathy has long been emptied by Earl’s negligence and philandering.
Despite these weaknesses, The Mule’s biggest asset turns out to be Eastwood himself. Like any other screen legend, it’s hard to watch him in a movie without thinking of his enormous cinematic legacy. If Eastwood made his name playing panchoed badasses and maverick cops, then The Mule flips that coin over to show a man who’s learned enough to know he should be smarter by now. An actor who once strode long and tall inhabits a man who is now hunched, vulnerable, and wracked with guilt. Like The Old Man and the Gun, The Mule shows a troubled character determined to walk his own path to redemption. It’s just a slower journey for this film to get him where we know he’s going.