TWO AND A HALF STARS An old man takes up drug trafficking to earn a few dollars for friends and family.
Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper
Director and star Clint Eastwood has a bet both ways in this drama about Earl Stone who becomes a drug mule to alleviate the pain of being a terrible husband / father / grandfather. Like that was going to work. It doesn’t of course, so it’s no surprise when Detective Bradley Cooper finally gets his man and throws him in the slammer, thus isolating him from family. Oh the irony. It’s a fair cop since 90 year old Earl had become pally with a dangerous Mexican cartel to traffic narcotics for a sizeable chunk of pocket money.
Although based in part on a true story - and the notion that a geriatric white male is invisible to the police is solid - THE MULE suffers from credibility issues. It’s difficult to accept the one time flower farmer is perfectly at ease with gun-toting criminals, and this is the least of the film’s problems. If the story focussed on that arrangement and the old timer’s fondness with political incorrectness it might be watchable as a toned down, reworked GRAN TORINO. Unlikely sure, but entertaining enough.
Instead that narrative thread has been tagged on to Earl’s desire to make good with his estranged family: there’s ample proof he’s a pretty useless as a husband / father / grandfather. The problem is that he doesn’t seen seem to care, despite frequently lecturing drug dealers and police about the value of family. By the time he finally has a particularly mawkish change of heart, it simply doesn’t ring true. With standard cutouts for secondary and support characters, THE MULE doesn’t give you much else to get involved with.
Granted there’s an elegance to the film in which violence is implied rather than staged for the camera, and Eastwood is always a compelling presence. But in failing to convince or engage, it comes across as a film that’s been thrown together in a contractual obligation kind of way. Compare it to Robert Redford’s similarly themed and utterly charming THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN, and THE MULE certainly comes up wanting.