At 88 years old, no one is going into “The Mule” expecting Clint Eastwood to be an action hero. At the same time, it’s more than fair to expect him to be something. For his latest directorial endeavor, Eastwood has opted to give himself a starring role yet again. However, he also gives himself a two-dimensional character that never compels you to root for him. He bestows the same rancid gift upon everyone else in the cast. Clint saw something in this project, obviously, but it’s hard to see what. Bloated, meandering, and completely lacking in tension, it’s a throwaway effort that has no business being spoken of in the same breath as the legend’s best work.
“The Mule” has its origins in a fascinating story. However, only the bare bones of that fascination make it onto the screen. Instead, we watch Eastwood amble about, muttering to himself. A lot of this film has sequences of an old man talking under his breath. That doesn’t endear you to him, nor does it inform you about the character at all. Like so much else in “The Mule,” it leaves Eastwood stuck in neutral.
An opening scene set about a decade in the past sets the stage. Earl Stone (Eastwood) is a horticulturist who knows everyone and has a wise remark for anyone he meets. He disappoints his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) and ex-wife Mary (Diane Wiest) yet again, this time missing his daughter’s wedding day. Fast forward to the present and he’s losing his house. Showing up to the engagement party of his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) with his worldly possessions in his pickup, he’s rightly chastised by Iris and Mary. Only Ginny sees him as a positive presence. Earl is ready to leave with his tail between his legs when fate intervenes. A guest at the party suggests a way for him to earn some quick money, doing nothing but driving.
With nothing to lose, Earl becomes the go to drug runner for a major cartel. Having never had a ticket and driven the country all his life, he’s a perfect mark. They even take a liking to him, something that isn’t the case with their normal mules. The money pours in, but doesn’t help with his personal problems. At the same time, the cartel is being investigated by the DEA, led by Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper). As Bates tries to identify the mule, Earl gets deeper and deeper into the syndicate. This may sound like it’s filled with suspense and tension, but really, it’s a whole lot of driving and not so close calls.
Clint Eastwood has a long and storied career both in front of and behind the camera. He’s even directed himself to his best performances, like in “Million Dollar Baby.” “The Mule,” however, is not that at all. So much of his performance seems like one giant shrug. Half of the work on screen is either sitting in a pickup truck, muttering under his breath, or engaging in casual racism with the cartel members. The part doesn’t offer a whole lot, requiring Eastwood to elevate it in some way. Sadly, he does not. Everything is surface level, leaving us wanting a hell of a lot more. Somehow, Eastwood the filmmaker doesn’t serve Eastwood the actor at all. He shows the most energy during a – wait for it – sex scene. The less said about that, the better.
Where to start with how poorly the supporting characters are treated? The biggest indictment is that you could remove almost all of them and the movie would actually improve. The DEA subplot is pointless and goes nowhere. Not only is Bradley Cooper criminally atrophied in a part meant as a favor to a friend, it’s just one of many. Laurence Fishburne and Michael Peña are just as tarnished. Whenever the plot turns to them, everything comes to a screeching halt. When the other half of the story concerns a senior citizen driving, you need more from this supposedly high octane aspect.
The family members serve more of a purpose, but Diane Wiest is on hand to exclusively spout exposition. Alison Eastwood and Taissa Farmiga are afterthoughts, while Clifton Collins Jr. is just one of many underserved cartel members. Then, there’s Andy Garcia, who plays the head of the cartel. He pops up midway through and seems like he’s going to be important. However, this being a bad movie, the story tosses him aside, much like it does with our hard earned time.
Eastwood must have loved Nick Schenk‘s screenplay for “Gran Torino” more than we realized, since Schenk scripts here as well. The writing is bare bones and doesn’t feel like enough for a feature film. That would leave Eastwood responsible for putting meat on the bones here, from the director’s chair. Instead, he just goes through the motions. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear this was a for hire gig, as opposed to something he opted to do on his own. He contributes sporadic moments of wit that will generate a smile, but they’re few and far between.
Aside from his longtime editor Joel Cox, Eastwood utilizes a different behind-the-scenes crew than usual. The largely daytime and outdoors setting prevents him from hiring Tom Stern as cinematographer again. Instead, Yves Bélanger handles the DP job. Nothing about Bélanger’s work is remarkable, like the rest of “The Mule,” but it doesn’t actively detract. Eastwood opts against his own piano score, instead using composer Arturo Sandoval. Again, it’s a neutral choice.
“The Mule” is not Oscar fare. It’s just not happening. Remove the Academy Award expectations and “The Mule” still falls short. There are occasional reasons to grin at a remark Eastwood makes, but otherwise, it’s boilerplate and deeply underwhelming. As forgettable as anything Eastwood has crafted as a filmmaker, it screams to be ignored. As a late breaking 2018 release, it’s incredibly out of place. It is only seeing the light of day now in order to placate Cooper. He wanted his “American Sniper” director on the awards trail with him as “A Star Is Born” makes its way towards the Oscars. That hubris has no place here. This is a January dumping ground release, through and through. Moreover, it would be better served just not being released at all.