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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

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.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…