Before 2018 comes to a close I do have one more review to share with you all and it’s one that comes highly requested. A few weeks ago a new film starring Clint Eastwood hit theaters called “The Mule”. Based on a true story of America’s oldest recorded drug mule this film has been requested by numerous people who wondered why I had yet to give it a watch considering how many movies I see week in and week out. Well the reason I had initially overlooked it was due to it’s simply okay critical reception, but I decided to make it the last movie I see in theaters in 2018 and share my take before the year is up. So, let’s see if this film was worth all of that demand. This is my review of “The Mule”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
Based on the true story of Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a drug mule for the Sinaloa Cartel as told in a famed New York Times article, “The Mule” stars Clint Eastwood as Earl Stone (a stand-in for Leo) who made a career out of his horticulture talents until the internet forces his business to shut down. Out of money and alone, having been estranged from his family for his constant life on the road, Earl happens upon an opportunity where he can serve as a drug mule for a cartel earning him thousands of dollars for each successful trip. His clean track record and casual approach to his deliveries make him an asset as he rises the ranks to become the cartel’s most trusted transporter. Meanwhile Earl uses the money he earns to help his community and family. However, Earl soon attracts attention from ambitious Special Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and his partner Special Agent Trevino (Michael Peña) who seek to put an end to Earl and the cartel’s successful relationship.
You’d think a story like “The Mule’s” would make for a good movie, right? Well not really, at least not in this case. “The Mule” seems like it should be an interesting crime thriller but the final product doesn’t really live up to that expectation at all. That’s not to say I couldn’t find at least a few positives though. Like many people I found Clint Eastwood’s performance to be solid. While it’s not his best work, it’s still a very good turn as an old, frustrated, casual man who finds himself unwittingly serving as the mule for a large cartel and uses the money in a Robin Hood like fashion for his loved ones and community. The problem here is that it’s the same old kind of elderly man we’ve seen Eastwood play so many times before, just with a little more tact and a softer personality. Still the old adage if it ain’t broke don’t fix it works here as Eastwood still gives a memorable turn as a character we can sympathize with, relate to and even root for from time to time as he goes deeper down the rabbit hole.
The best part of this movie for me though was Bradley Cooper. While Eastwood does give us an awesome performance, Cooper’s feels much more charismatic, fun and is much better written than Eastwood’s character. Cooper plays Colin Bates, the special agent tasked with tracking down Eastwood’s Earl. Bates doesn’t get a whole lot of character development, save for a charming interaction with Earl in a Waffle House, but what we do see of him makes him one of the most likable, if not THE most likable character in the entire film. He doesn’t feel like he’s just doing his job and yet he also feels like part of his motivation is to live up to the expectations of his badge. Cooper adds his own special comedic flair to his role too as a take-no-bullshit cop that never underestimates the value of personal relationships. He’s just a fun person to get to see on screen and seeing Cooper play off Eastwood is pretty neat as well even if both performers could have benefited from much better material to truly sell their exchange.
“The Mule” is also very nice to look at. The establishing shots and shooting locations are gorgeous and fit the aesthetic I think the film was trying to go for. Part of Eastwood’s character is that he’s an old man who is unfamiliar with technology and finds joy in the simple beauty of life so it’s only natural that this story would take place on highways with gorgeous scenery and at rest stop and gas stations that have a run down, more classic look to them. It all fits who we know the main character to be. He loves to drive, has had no violations and takes in the beauty around him. The settings allow us to feel the joy he probably feels in the cab of his truck. The world around him from point A to point B seems to peaceful with all the chaos of his life taking place either at home or at his destination. That’s a neat little detail to throw in especially as the story progresses and the drug cartel starts to forsake how Earl’s simple, carefree style is benefiting them more than hurting them. It’s only when the cartel demands control and decides to relinquish Earl of his peace of mind that things start to go wrong. “The Mule” doesn’t offer a whole lot in the way of subtlety, but this I felt was a neat little aspect that made “The Mule” bearable if nothing else.
Alright so despite the positives I already laid out above, overall “The Mule” was a big disappointment for me. This was not the heartfelt, thrilling crime drama I expected. In fact, I found it to be downright boring most of the time. Aside from Eastwood and Cooper none of the other characters stand out and some, especially Earl’s wife Mary played by Dianne Wiest, are downright odd and overacted or overwritten. Great talents like Taissa Farmiga and Michael Peña are wasted on thinly developed characters who lack any real memorable qualities. There’s little interest in this tale other than the mule himself and the agent hunting him down and this is sad because a big theme of the film is the value of family. That entire concept feels completely phoned in because we get very little quality acting or writing to allow us to invest in how this family works. Most of the conflict is developed so fast that we can’t really get a grasp on the impact it leaves while at other times the drama between loved ones is so overplayed that it borders on ridiculous. Even a touching moment between Earl and his wife in the final act of the film has no weight to it because it feels like it’s trying way to hard to make us care about people we couldn’t invest in to start with.
And that brings me to the biggest issue I have with “The Mule”, its lack of emotional impact. This is a very dry film that never finds its footing and can’t seem to find a tone either. We do get moments of levity and scenes that try to capitalize on what little emotional depth there is in the writing, but nothing really stuck with me. By the end of the film I didn’t feel like any redemption or life lesson was earned or even warranted. Even the final moments of the film were frustrating because the movie tries to show us that Earl has accepted the consequences of his actions, but it would have been so much better off if he was forced to endure the consequences by force. The fact that we see him make sacrifices to punish himself doesn’t teach him or us anything. It actually shows he hasn’t learned a damn thing because his decisions are just as selfish as ever.
To put it simply even after nearly two hours I couldn’t tell you what I was supposed to take away from this movie. There’s no solid tone, the emotional core seems to be phoned in at best, the characters are thin and forgettable for the most part. It’s a generic story that I though I wanted to see but turned out to be much less engaging than originally promised. The direction is all over the place, the writing is bland at best, and despite the big names in the cast “The Mule” fails to really bring out the best in anyone we see on screen. Even the drug cartel isn’t that interesting. We see Earl form a relationship with some of the cartel members over the course of the movie but otherwise it just feels like the same old generic group of thugs we’ve seen in literally every other drug-related film. There’s nothing that sets them apart except maybe the compassionate nature of their leader, played by Andy Garcia, and for reasons I won’t spoil here we don’t even get to enjoy that for very long. “The Mule” just doesn’t work on the level it needs to and, to put it bluntly, it’s a boring mess.
I wanted to like this movie. I really did. While “The Mule” is not a complete train wreck and sports some redeeming factors it’s really nothing special. Bradley Cooper and Clint Eastwood shine as brightly as they can with the material given to them, but the rest of the cast is either bland or trying way too hard and do nothing to compliment the extensive pool of talent involved in this film. “The Mule” is poorly written, boring and just straight up uninteresting despite it’s compelling inspiration. It almost feels like this film is caught between two extremes. On one hand it feels like its trying to be reserved and showcase a more grounded take on its real life story, but on the other hand it also seems like it wants to be a full on crime drama but never takes the leap to own the possibilities of its premise. The result is a movie that can’t decide what it wants to be or what it wants to teach its viewers and how it wants to sell any of the morals or characters in play. That said “The Mule” might satisfy a few dedicated fans of its lead actors, but for me it was a disappointment that failed to reach anything close to its true potential.