These days — and perhaps since he first stepped behind a camera — it takes a particular talent to make an acting impact in a Clint Eastwood film. Tom Hanks (Sully) is the most recent exception and Morgan Freeman (Invictus; Unforgiven) always seems to shine under Dirty Harry’s direction, but Eastwood himself isn’t one of these standouts — a major problem for The Mule, which leans heavily on the legend and his certain set of charms.
Though he nowhere near deserves it, Eastwood could conceivably land a Best Actor nomination at this year’s Academy Awards simply by playing himself in what could be his last acting role (which now, blessedly, isn’t the soul-sucking Trouble With the Curve).
The effortless (not a compliment) vessel goes by the name of Earl Stone, an Illinois horticulturalist whose prioritization of work has led to estrangement from him family. Inspired by the New York Times Magazine article "The Sinaloa Cartel's 90-Year Old Drug Mule," the Eastwood archetype flirts with women, growls about the evils of the internet, and barks out non-PC musings without a hint of self-consciousness. Viewer mileage with these quirks may vary.
His business dried up and those online devils to blame, Earl stumbles into employment as a drug runner for “the cartel,” road trips that involve him getting awkwardly chummy with the Mexican load-in crew, singing along to his favorite songs on the radio, and acting flabbergasted when a fat envelope of post-delivery cash appears in his glove compartment.
As The Mule repeats this folksy pattern with minimal variance, one quickly understands how Eastwood remains so prolific as a director as the years pile up. Sped along by his now legendary single-take ways, his flat filmmaking style pairs with an absent musical score to drain the life from each scene and receives little help from Sam Dolnick’s uninspired script.
Meanwhile, lazy signs of patriotism pander to the star’s fanbase, as does a bizarre game of Minority Bingo involving Dykes on Bikes, stranded “negro” motorists, and others unfortunate enough to cross paths with a filter-free geezer whose sudden wealth accentuates his forehead-slapping personality traits. (Naturally, he’s a hit with young supermodel-type women.)
Eleventh hour tension as DEA agents played by Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña close in and drama boils up within the cartel add some much needed spice to the infinite loop, and the same goes whenever Andy Garcia — wrapping up one of the strangest, yet strangely engrossing movie years in recent memory — appears as the drug empire’s kingpin.
Earl’s attempts at reconciliation with his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Iris (Alison “Hey Pops” Eastwood), however, prove less successful through Eastwood’s dry lens. In search of grand emotion via an epiphany of life’s most important parts, The Mule instead sputters to a close, its would-be message lost in the comatose jumble.
Grade: C-minus. Rated R. Now playing at Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Warner Bros.)