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"THE MULE"
(2018) (Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A broke octogenarian takes a job as a drug mule for a Mexican cartel and must contend with the consequences of that.
PLOT:
Earl Stone (CLINT EASTWOOD) is an eighty-something florist who's long been estranged from his ex-wife, Mary (DIANNE WIEST), and adult daughter, Iris (ALISON EASTWOOD), although he still keeps in touch with his young adult granddaughter, Ginny (TAISSA FARMIGA). When his shop closes due to online competition, Earl finds himself in need of money. Learning of that and the fact that he spent most of his career driving around the country without a single citation, a stranger gives him a number to call for such a line of work.

Despite not knowing what he's transporting and obviously dealing with armed criminal types, Earl takes the job, thinking it will be a one-time thing. But with his cut of the action being big and facing foreclosure on his house, Earl decides to keep up with such blind driving of what he eventually learns are shipments of cocaine.

He gets so good at it that he draws the attention of drug cartel kingpin Laton (ANDY GARCIA) who wants the amount of drugs he's transporting increased. But with that comes a handler, Julio (IGNACIO SERRICCHIO), who will accompany him on his trips and is less than happy with the glorified babysitting gig.

At the same time, the Chicago office of the DEA is in need of making a big bust, and thus the special agent in charge (LAURENCE FISHBURNE) assigns newly relocated agent Colin Bates (BRADLEY COOPER) to work with DEA Agent Treviņo (MICHAEL PENA) to try to crack the cartel's shipment program.

To do so, they convince cartel guy Luis Rocha (EUGENE CORDERO) to become their informant, and he reluctantly begins feeding them info that gets them closer to cracking the case. All of which means they and Earl the unlikely drug mule will eventually end up on a collision course.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
I'm getting to that age where older friends and relatives have already retired or see that in their immediate future, all of which begs the question of what they're going to do next. In the old days, you retired in your mid to late sixties and probably only lived a decade or two, if you were lucky, after that. Nowadays, people are often retiring younger and living longer, and while they expect they're going to enjoy just sitting around and doing nothing of consequence, most quickly realize they have to do something to alleviate their boredom and give them some sense of continued worth in the world.

And that's why you see lots of older folks working as greeters at big box stores or other such places. Of course, for some of them, that's not a matter of needing something to fill one's day with purpose. Instead, it's to make ends meet, put food in their mouths and keep a roof over their heads. Sadly, there aren't a lot of choices out there for the seventy and older crowd, with such options dwindling with each additional year tacked onto that age number.

So, sometimes you have to get resourceful and sometimes you have to let luck help you out. Such was the case with Leo Sharp who, at the age of 87, was arrested by the Michigan state police, in coordination with the DEA, for being a drug runner, a.k.a. a "mule," for the Mexican Sinaloa Drug Cartel. At the time of his arrest in 2011, he reportedly had two-hundred pounds of cocaine in his possession, likely valued at more than the combined yearly wages of every septuagenarian and octogenarian working as door greeters at Walmart that year.

His tale was covered by Sam Dolnick in his New York Times article, "The Sinaloa Cartel's 90-Year-Old Drug Mule," and that's now inspired the latest film from iconic Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood, "The Mule." Marking his first time on film since 2012's "Trouble With the Curve" and the first time directing himself since 2008's "Gran Torino," the 88-year-old actor/filmmaker obviously looks every day the age of his protagonist, renamed here as Earl Stone by screenwriter Nick Schenk who loosely works from Dolnick's article.

The real-life man, a Bronze Star Medal recipient for his service in WWII, later went on to become a horticulturist and florist. But when his shop hit financial straits, he got offered a job driving drugs for the cartel, and that unlikely but lucrative job development is portrayed on the screen, along with strained family matters (that may or may not be fictional), as the film's nearly two-hour runtime plays out. Eastwood portrays Stone as someone who likely could have been friends with the actor's cantankerous, racist and misanthropic character from "Gran Torino," as they somewhat share similar "the world was better way back when" qualities.

That ranges from him being befuddled by smartphones and irked that young(er) people are always on them nowadays to telling an African-American family with a flat tire that he likes helping out "Negroes." But at the same time, he ends up friends (of sorts) with some Mexican drug cartel types and Eastwood and Schenk do occasionally insert some bits where the character's mindset and mouth are called out by those he's offended.

But the film isn't really about such social interactions. Instead, it's about his unique line of work in which he becomes so proficient that he not only draws the admiration of a cartel boss (Andy Garcia), but also the DEA, personified by Laurence Fishburne, Michael Pena, and Bradley Cooper. The latter is based on the real-life agent who helped nab the real-life mule, but some have pointed out the oddity of not featuring the red-hot Cooper (of "A Star is Born" fame of recent, but also the Oscar-nominated star of Eastwood's "American Sniper") in the ads for the film.

I'm not sure why the studio's taken that advertising route as Cooper and his cohorts get a decent amount of screen time. But as oft occurs with films like these, the story jumps back and forth between the old guy doing his thing and the young DEA agent doing his, with us knowing full well their paths will eventually intersect in the third act. And right before that goes down, there's a decent interaction between the two characters in a diner (where the agent is not aware he's talking to the man he's after) as they discuss work messing up their family lives.

But for every scene that works quite well, there are also clunkers, such as Dianne Wiest's character (the ex-wife) listing all of the various events her husband missed in her past and that of their daughter (Eastwood's real-life daughter, Alison). It's lazy exposition, and similar bit of clunkiness show up from time to time, as do some bad editing and flat direction (and thus storytelling).

Alas, the poor qualities outweigh the decent to good ones and thus "The Mule" might prove it's time for Eastwood (now in his 63rd year in showbiz) -- who also helmed the flat "The 15:17 to Paris" earlier this year -- to think about hanging up the directing and maybe even acting gigs. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed December 14, 2018 / Posted December 14, 2018


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