Film review: The Mule relies on Clint Eastwood to inject life into plodding tale

Clint Eastwood is in crotchety old warhorse guise in The Mule, about an octogenarian who takes up drug smuggling while trying to repair damaged family relationships. It takes a while to get going but is enlivened by the 88-year-old Hollywood veteran, writes Damon Smith

Dianne Wiest and Clint Eastwood in The Mule
Damon Smith

CLINT Eastwood refuses to follow Robert Redford's lead and glide serenely into self-imposed retirement as he directs and stars in a gently paced thriller inspired by an outlandish true story of opportunistic criminal enterprise.

Adapted for the screen with an exceedingly heavy hand by Nick Schenk, who penned Eastwood's 2008 drama Gran Torino, The Mule relies on its leading man to inject life into a plodding tale of fractured families and economic strife.

The 88-year-old Oscar winner duly obliges, investing his politically incorrect old coot with rascally charm and old-fashioned grit, which allows his fallen family man to ferry hundreds of kilos of cocaine across Illinois without arousing the suspicions of law enforcement.

Schenk's linear script hammers home the lead character's failings as a husband and father with the subtlety of a battering ram to a rickety wooden door, engineering pointed and frosty conversations between family members as Eastwood's condemned man attempts to atone for his sins.

"What do you want?" snaps his ailing ex-wife, played by Dianne Wiest, when he materialises unannounced. "You're not in the will."

Korean War veteran Earl Stone (Eastwood) used to be a cause celebre in horticultural circles.

Unfortunately, he failed to move with the times by investing in an online marketplace for his gold medal-winning lilies.

The bank has foreclosed on Earl's home, a once-blooming business has wilted and his worldly possessions are crammed into the back of his pick-up truck.

"Damn internet, ruins anything," he growls.

An associate of Earl's granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) provides the old timer with a deceptively simple way to dig himself out of a financial hole.

"I have friends looking for cautious drivers like you," explains the young man.

Earl agrees to courier a bag across state lines – no questions asked – which contains a consignment of drugs for cigar-puffing cartel boss Laton (Andy Garcia).

As an elderly driver with an unblemished record, Earl is ignored by police and he is rewarded handsomely for his services.

The volume of cocaine increases on subsequent runs until Earl is the most profitable mule in Laton's stable, earning him the nickname Tata.

Newfound wealth rebuilds bridges to embittered ex-wife Mary (Wiest) and estranged daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood).

Meanwhile, hotshot DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and partner Trevino (Michael Pena) receive intelligence about a mule called Tata and begin a stakeout.

The Mule trots, fittingly, at a pedestrian pace until the DEA operation gathers pace in a rushed final half hour.

Cooper and Wiest are solid in barely three-dimensional supporting roles but both spark pleasingly with Eastwood in pivotal exchanges regarding Earl's regrets about prioritising work over family.

The trickle of bad blood is neatly and conveniently staunched before the end credits roll, suggesting that crime pays to salve deep emotional wounds.

THE MULE (15, 116 mins) Thriller/Romance. Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, Dianne Wiest, Alison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Andy Garcia, Laurence Fishburne. Director: Clint Eastwood.

RATING: 6/10

Released: January 25 (UK & Ireland)

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