** out of ****
(for strong language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity)
Released: December 14, 2018
Runtime: 116 minutes
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Taissa Farmiga, MichaelPeña, Alison Eastwood, Andy Garcia, Laurence Fishburne, Dianne Wiest, Jill Flint, Clifton Collins Jr., Robert LaSardo, Katie Gill
Clint. Buddy. Retire already.
You’ve had a great career. Unforgiven is a masterpiece, several other films you’ve directed are classics, and your best performances are iconic. So relax. Rest. Step aside. Hang it up. You’ve earned it, and you’ve got the Oscars to show for it.
It’s not that a nearly-90 year old filmmaker can’t still be vital. Your ongoing prolific output is, in itself, impressive for any age. But do you even care any more? The Mule makes a compelling case that you don’t.
Indeed, it’s telling that whoever edited the film’s intriguing trailers had a much more compelling grasp of the material than you did.
Barely workmanlike, The Mule is a flat, languid, slapdash story of Earl Stone (played by Clint Eastwood). He’s a senior citizen who, having caused a falling out with his family, now makes lucrative drug runs in his pickup for a Mexican drug cartel.
Assembled with palpable disinterest, this feels like a “thriller” that’s AARP approved.
It all plays out like a first draft construct that needs more fleshing out. A lot more. Character and relationship dynamics swing widely (like when family members turn from bitterly estranged to deeply devoted on a dime), while key plot elements literally make no sense (like how the cartel starts putting the screws on Stone’s relaxed approach to the job even though he is, by far, their most reliable driver – to the point of legend).
The script plays fast and loose with details, too, like how the Feds can magically bug and track vehicles or record cell phone conversations – both foreign and domestic – the moment an agent gets the greenlight.
Famous for his three-takes-or-less efficiency, Eastwood’s economic ethic has become an infamous liability. The Mule lacks any sense of style, dramatic urgency, or emotional earnestness.
Moments contrived to create tension feel cliché and, at times, downright laughable, and its generic crime story narrative – which includes an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper, Eastwood’s American Sniperstar) hot on his trail – has all the artistry of a second-tier TNT drama.
Andy Garcia seems to be the only person having some fun here (he’s the drug lord who shoots guns and throws wild parties, after all, so why wouldn’t he?), and Cooper is a dutiful protégé who invests more into his stock character than Clint does into his lead.
Eastwood seems more drawn to Stone’s cute cantankerous gruff than the regrets that would give him depth. No one or nothing comes close to making any of this remotely worthwhile, let alone fresh or surprising.
There’s a much better version of this kind of character study – about an aging criminal in his twilight – from earlier this year: The Old Man & the Gun. It stars Robert Redford, a director himself who was smart enough to let another, younger filmmaker (David Lowery) guide the creative ship, one who still brings thematic and aesthetic passion to his work.
Eastwood still brings a baseline marketability for a moderate budget, but that’s about it. And it’s not nearly enough. The Mule barely inspires the energy it takes to tell you how boring it is.