Some actors age gracefully. They forgo the youthful roles of their early careers, often in favor of those more mature and dramatic. Others simply ride their fame and influence to the director’s chair. These are the immortal ones, the Streeps, the McKellens, the De Niros. Some actors, however, find themselves unable to part with the roles and ideas that first made them great. They resist change with contempt until their careers are lost to obscurity. With his latest film “The Mule,” director and Western-film legend Clint Eastwood seems poised to do just that.
I went to see this film with my grandfather, both of us praying for “Dirty Harry” Clint Eastwood and not “The 15:17 to Paris” Clint Eastwood. Unfortunately, what we got was “talking to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention” Clint Eastwood. For those not familiar, “The Mule” tells the story of Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino”), a charismatic horticulturalist in his early 90s who could never quite slow down to make time for his family. When Earl goes bankrupt, an opportunity arises for him to make some fast cash transporting contraband as a drug mule for the Mexican Drug Cartel. In short, the movie is baby boomer fantasy porn. No, seriously, a scene about two-thirds of the way through the movie sees Earl fawned over by topless prostitutes, and seems to exist with little purpose aside from being documented proof that Clint Eastwood can still get it up.
It’s rare that I should leave a movie without a single positive thing to say, and yet here we are. The writing is corny, the performances forgettable and the action sequences strangely absent from a movie advertising itself as an action film. Beyond being an abject failure of a film, “The Mule” also seems insistent on pushing Eastwood’s dated social politics. In one eye-roll inducing scene, Earl pulls over on the side of the road to help a young Black family with a flat tire. The father explains that he’s been on the internet trying to find a solution, to which Earl replies, “That’s the problem with you Millenials; can’t do anything without your dang Google boxes.” Earl then replaces the tire, but not without casually dropping a racial slur. When the family reprimands him, he rolls his eyes and is on his merry way to deliver the kilogram of cocaine in his trunk.
Obviously Earl Stone isn’t Clint Eastwood, but it’s impossible not to feel like the character is a surrogate for how Eastwood views himself; a charismatic bad boy full of wry witticisms and a condescending chagrin for political correctness. As a result, “The Mule” feels less like an actual film and more like a highlight reel of what happens when Eastwood has nobody around him willing to tell him “no.” It should serve as a testament to the weight that his name still carries that he managed to get Bradley Cooper (“A Star is Born”) to be in this movie, especially considering Cooper’s character, DEA agent Colin Bates, is completely forgettable. Then again, nothing about “The Mule” is particularly memorable. It feels like a caricature of a film we’ve all seen before. It’s a fitting metaphor as Clint Eastwood strays further and further into his own self-characterization.