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 writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

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…

Only an idiot sees the simple beauty of life.

Forrest Gump (1994)
(SPOILERS) There was a time when I’d have made a case for, if not greatness, then Forrest Gump’s unjust dismissal from conversations regarding its merits. To an extent, I still would. Just not nearly so fervently. There’s simply too much going on in the picture to conclude that the manner in which it has generally been received is the end of the story. Tarantino, magnanimous in the face of Oscar defeat, wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested to Robert Zemeckis that his was a, effectively, subversive movie. Its problem, however, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it.

Basically, you’re saying marriage is just a way of getting out of an embarrassing pause in conversation?

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
(SPOILERS) There can be a cumulative effect from revisiting a movie where one glaring element does not fit, however well-judged or integrated everything else is; the error is only magnified, and seems even more of a miscalculation. With Groundhog Day, there’s a workaround to the romance not working, which is that the central conceit of reliving your day works like a charm and the love story is ultimately inessential to the picture’s success. In the case of Four Weddings and a Funeral, if the romance doesn’t work… Well, you’ve still got three other weddings, and you’ve got a funeral. But our hero’s entire purpose is to find that perfect match, and what he winds up with is Andie McDowell. One can’t help thinking he’d have been better off with Duck Face (Anna Chancellor).

Stupid adult hands!

Shazam! (2019)
(SPOILERS) Shazam! is exactly the kind of movie I hoped it would be, funny, scary (for kids, at least), smart and delightfully dumb… until the final act. What takes place there isn’t a complete bummer, but right now, it does pretty much kill any interest I have in a sequel.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Do not mention the Tiptoe Man ever again.

Glass (2019)
(SPOILERS) If nothing else, one has to admire M Night Shyamalan’s willingness to plough ahead regardless with his straight-faced storytelling, taking him into areas that encourage outright rejection or merciless ridicule, with all the concomitant charges of hubris. Reactions to Glass have been mixed at best, but mostly more characteristic of the period he plummeted from his must-see, twist-master pedestal (during the period of The Village and The Happening), which is to say quite scornful. And yet, this is very clearly the story he wanted to tell, so if he undercuts audience expectations and leaves them dissatisfied, it’s most definitely not a result of miscalculation on his part. For my part, while I’d been prepared for a disappointment on the basis of the critical response, I came away very much enjoying the movie, by and large.