How’s this for timing? With Britain currently in the grip of a panic, unsure about whether it’s safe to take to the road lest an elderly member of the Royal Family happens along at speed, along comes Clint Eastwood — safe, dependable, ever-reliable Clint — to show that pensioners can get behind the wheel and get safely from A to B without ploughing into something.
For The Mule is largely a film about Clint Eastwood driving. And driving. And then driving some more, just for good measure. And along the way, this most unlikely of drug mules has the odd adventure. He takes a couple of cartel members for a pulled pork sandwich. He has teachable moments in which the old guy, set in his ways, says something racially inappropriate and then gets called on it. And he has threesomes. Yes, plural. Clint hasn’t had this much action on screen since Tightrope.
Seeing Eastwood at his most charming and good-natured is always enjoyable.
This section of the film is amiable enough, even if it doesn’t get remotely close to exploring the moral quandary of Earl’s actions. If he’s conflicted about driving across country with hundreds of kilos of heroin in his boot, he hides it well. But seeing Eastwood — a little more frail than we’ve seen him before — at his most charming and good-natured, singing along to tunes on his car stereo, is always enjoyable. It also perhaps explains why the movie has done so well in the States (it’s closing in on $100 million, surely a record for a movie with a leading man in his eighties). Perhaps it’s connected with an ageing audience that often feels overlooked and underrepresented on the big screen.
Still, it’s all fun and games until someone gets shot in the back of the head. Because there’s another movie happening while Earl is hitting top gear and embarking on his grand tour. That movie plays like Eastwood and writer Nick Schenk saw a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, right down to a brief cameo from one of the terrifying Mexican cousins (Daniel Moncada) from that show. Every now and again the director Eastwood will cut to Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña and Laurence Fishburne’s DEA agents as the net closes in, but apart from a nice scene between Earl and Cooper’s unwitting Colin Bates at a diner, it’s all a bit workmanlike.
At a certain point, as the cartel begins to turn on Earl, and the DEA close in, the two movies have to converge. And this is where The Mule runs out of road. From the off, Eastwood seems uninterested in exploring the thriller aspects of the story. He’s ultimately more interested in depicting Earl’s regret over a life misspent, and while that’s an intriguing detour, it dissipates any dramatic tension. As is often the way, the end of the journey simply isn’t as much fun as the beginning.