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

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're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

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…

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.

I’m not the Jedi I should be.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
(SPOILERS) Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the only series entry (thus far) I haven’t seen at the cinema. After the first two prequels I felt no great urgency, and it isn’t an omission I’d be hugely disposed to redress for (say) a 12-hour movie marathon, were such a thing held in my vicinity. In the bare bones of Revenge of the Sith, however,George Lucas has probably the strongest, most confident of all Star Wars plots to date.

This is, after all, the reason we have the prequels in the first place; the genesis of Darth Vader, and the confrontation between Anakin and Obi Wan. That it ends up as a no more than middling movie is mostly due to Lucas’ gluttonous appetite for CGI (continuing reference to its corruptive influence is, alas, unavoidable here). But Episode III is also Exhibit A in a fundamental failure of casting and character work; this was the last chance to give Anakin Skywalker substance, to reveal his potential …

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

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.

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.