Skip to main content

I know a lot about oh shits.

The Mule
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Clint gets back in the acting saddle, probably reallyfor the last time, this time – unless we get that final Dirty Harry sequel – and if Green Book is accused of being a product of a different era, the charge could be levelled at The Mule with bells on. Eastwood positively revels in playing a not always too likeable un-PC old goat, with the get-out that drug mule Earl Stone is a very flawed man, so this is a journey of redemption. Ironically, given Clint’s been exclusively concentrating on calling the shots in the meantime, this is the near-nonagenarian’s best movie in a decade, since the last time he directed himself.

It's scarcely credible that this was based on a true story (of Leo Sharp), not because the account of the world’s oldest drug mule (well, caught one anyway) is inconceivable, but because the various tropes, clichés and character beats infused into Nick Schenk’s adaptation of Sam Dolnick’s New York Times article result in exactly the same kind of heroising by reformed outlook he lent to, yes, Gran Torino for Clint. Clint’s Korean war vet is a failed husband and father, too invested in is daylilies to pay them much heed, but you’d think theywere at fault, so unswervingly hardened against him are they (except for Taissa Farmiga’s devoted granddaughter). So, when circumstances look to further underscore his dereliction of duties, he turns to a spot of providential drug couriering for a Mexican cartel, and before long he’s swimming in cash and thawing out his family’s long-frozen feelings towards him. Luckily too, no one’s much interested in finding out where his loot came from (including, presumably his mortgage lender).

The triumph of his family returned isn’t overly convincing, particularly on the part of his daughter, played by Clint’s very own Alison, but because Clint’s style – or lack thereof – is so understated, even the corniest material passes without truly sticking in the craw. And there’s a great ex-wife performance from Dianne Wiest, even though there’s nothing very rewarding for her to work with; she’s there to loathe Clint, then find him charming because he has loot (despite saying that isn’t why), and then die so he can be there nursing her and so add to the pile of redeeming acts he’s building up.

The picture is modelled around saying Earl’s alright really, and he kind ofis, despite being not; he isn’t just a bad husband, he’s a thoroughly unreconstituted, reactionary so-and-so, railing against cell phones and a generation with no practical skills, showing off his racism (but not really) and bigotry (but not really), none of which matters because he’s a fair minded, equal-opportunities curmudgeon at heart. Look at the way he’s getting on with the cartel’s foot soldiers in no time, even the nasty but actually just misunderstood lieutenant (Ignacio Serricchio). Look at how chummy he becomes with “nice” drug lord Andy Garcia (still showing a flash of younger, carefree Andy occasionally, back when he had a bit of an edge). Look at how, despite repeatedly professing to be in no position to know better, he dispenses wisdom to DEA Special Agent Bradley Cooper (although to be fair to the latter, he does play it as if he might be humouring the old man).

And look at the way he resigns himself to his fate and punishment at the end, espousing his guilt to the tears of his now-devoted family. And yet, this means he gets to return to his beloved horticulture, so there’s a silver lining. We’re supposed to love Earl for his transgressions, and be on board with the pearl of truth in his tutting at the younger generation. And in Clint’s mind, I’m guessing we’re supposed to yell “You go great-grandad” when he has a threesome (twice!) despite it being as queasy-making and uncomfortable as seeing Alfred Steptoe leching away.

The thing is, though, despite there being many ways this could have been told better, simply by tinkering with the character arcs and making it a little less fixated on building up Earl’s stature, as a piece of storytelling The Mule largely succeeds. The direction is as languorous as ever from Clint, who has only ever been as good as his screenplays (he is nota creative director), but this one has a natural motor propelling it, thanks to Schenk signposting the DEA’s interest even before Earl even embarks on his first run, and then pacing the unfolding according to these runs. Cooper and Pena (a fairly thankless role for the latter, even more so for Larry Fishburne as their boss) don’t have an awful lot of note to do, but like Wiest, they do it well.

And Clint, who hasn’t appeared on screen in six years, is still able to hold his own in a scene (although, bizarrely, he looks older when he’s playing his decade-younger self in the opening than he does in the rest of the movie); ever since he talked to a chair in 2012, his politics have been a too-easy means to reprimand him, but anyone with their eyes half open could have done that forty years earlier and any time between.

Ostensibly, this is a tale of a man atoning for past sins and accepting he deserves to be punished for them, but as with Gran Torino, Clint and Schenk use it as a rathe crude means to venerate Earl, leaving him on a note of wistful melancholy. Which is the story of Eastwood the star’s career, so probably about right for a swan song. I’m reasonably sure they cut Clint getting pistol-whipped because it was considered too brutal to see a very senior citizen having the shit kicked out of him, even one who once did it to others on screen for a living. And the court proceedings also seemed somewhat truncated, but that’s all good, since the picture wisely didn’t outstay its welcome. The Mule’s an affable movie despite not being remotely challenging, even unto itself, fitting more into the kind of lead-actor pictures the director was churning out during the ‘90s than the biographical fare he’s had such a patchy time with of late.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.