The Mule

Clint Eastwood's movies as a director can be placed into one of three categories: those that are genuinely great (Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven, American Sniper), those that are pretty good (Gran Torino, Sully, Space Cowboys), and the occasional duds (J. Edgar, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). The Mule falls into the middle category. While it might not be his deepest or most substantive work, the film is nevertheless very entertaining, and it offers Eastwood one of his most captivating roles as an actor in a long time.

He plays Earl Stone, a 90-year old horticulturist who gets down in the dumps when his property is foreclosed upon. A fluke encounter at a party leads to an opportunity to earn some much-needed money. The hitch is that he must transport drugs for a cartel run by a kingpin named Laton (Andy Garcia). Earl is the perfect candidate. He's a careful driver who doesn't seem at all like someone who'd be hauling contraband. At first, it's just a practicality to him. Soon, though, he's taking on more and more assignments so that he can pay for his granddaughter's wedding and do other good deeds. Dianne Wiest plays Mary, Earl's ex-wife, who doesn't know what he's up to but appreciates his good deeds nonetheless.

Meanwhile, the authorities are hot on his trail. Bradley Cooper co-stars as Colin Bates, a DEA agent trying to figure out who Laton's elusive mule is.

The Mule is loosely based on a true story. The screenplay by Nick Schenk invents a lot of stuff, while still retaining the undeniably amusing idea of a man of Earl's age suddenly falling into a life of crime. In a particularly compelling angle, Earl is completely ambivalent about what he's doing. He knows what's in the trunk of his pickup, yet he never once expresses any remorse about being part of a criminal enterprise. All of it is simply a means to an end for him. Only when he gets in over his head does the weight of his new “job” fully sink in.

Eastwood has never really played a character like this. Earl loves being the center of attention. He's always got a joke or a quip. We sense that part of the reason he's drawn to being a drug mule is because the dealers he's working for are intently focused on him. He's got an engaged audience. The actor is vibrant onscreen in a way we haven't quite seen before. None of the patented Eastwood toughness is on display here. Even after decades in the movie business, he still manages to find new notes to play.

The subplot about Earl and his family – and his eventual realization that he's been a lousy husband/father – is pretty predictable and uninspired. It feels like that section has been included to create some kind of emotional payoff. The Mule needed to either develop that more fully or scrap it altogether. As it stands, those scenes play out in a slightly melodramatic manner.

Thankfully, the focus is generally on Earl's work for the cartel, as well as the mindset that allows him to do the job without thinking too much about the potential repercussions of it. The Mule works best as a character study of a man whose moral perspective is just outdated enough to make him an almost accidental criminal.

Blu-ray Features:

The Mule comes to 4K Ultra HD combo pack, Blu-ray combo pack, and DVD on April 2. A complimentary copy of the Blu-ray was provided by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment for the purposes of this review.

There are only two supplementary materials on the disc. “Nobody Runs Forever” is a short but enjoyable making-of documentary. Eastwood talks about adapting this unusual story, and the other actors talk about working with the famed director.

Also present is the music video for Toby Keith's “Don't Let the Old Man In” – the song that plays over the end credits.

Picture and sound quality on the Blu-ray are excellent.

out of four

The Mule is rated R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.