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Front Page - Friday, December 21, 2018

Critic's Corner: Only most stubborn Eastwood fans will like ‘The Mule’

The trailer for “The Mule” suggests writer-director Clint Eastwood’s new film is a tense thriller about an octogenarian drug runner and the DEA agent who’s gradually closing in on him.

Eastwood’s gravely voiceovers, the foreboding hum of the background music and the clips of Eastwood on the open road, anxiously peering into his rearview mirror, makes “The Mule” look like an atmospheric thrill-ride through a hidden world.

To really stir excitement in viewers, the trailer even shows Eastwood’s character casually telling a state trooper he’s hauling pecans (which he pronounces “pee-cans”). The clip ends with a sniffer dog barking like mad as it exits the trooper’s vehicle.

Since there’s a bag of cocaine on the truck as well, the trailer leaves Eastwood in a pickle and viewers wondering how he’s going to get out of it. It’s a clever piece of marketing.

If the trailer had showed how the scene ends, however, it would have squashed viewer expectations. I won’t give it away, but it’s an unlikely solution that made me roll my eyes.

And that describes “The Mule” as a whole. Given its central conceit, it should have been gripping and suspenseful, but instead it’s a little messy and lacks tension.

The idea is a good one. Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a 90-year-old horticulturalist and Korean War vet who’s estranged from his family and facing financial ruin. Desperate for money, he begins transporting cocaine for a Mexican drug cartel.

Before you write off the notion of an elderly man running drugs, I should tell you “The Mule” is based on a true story.

In real life, he was Leo Sharp, a 90-year-old World War II veteran who specialized in growing daylilies. When his business failed because he couldn’t learn to use a computer, a laborer on his farm offered him an easy way to make money.

Before long, Sharp was moving $2 million worth of drugs a month and making a cool million a year. (See “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule” by the New York Times.)

While these and other details are in “The Mule” in slightly altered form, screenwriter Nick Schenk (who penned Eastwood’s “Gran Torino”) makes at least two major changes: He afflicts Stone with deep regret for neglecting his wife and daughter and turns the unrepentant Sharp into a remorseful Stone. This softens the movie, which already lacks bite, even further.

Eastwood is an accomplished director who’s helmed more than three dozen films, including classics likes “Unforgiven” and award winners such as “Million Dollar Baby.” But he’s off his game with “The Mule.”

During the scenes in which Eastwood picks up his cargo, the acting has a loose, improvisational quality that doesn’t work. Also, the actor who plays an informant for the DEA agent who begins tracking Stone mucks up every scene he’s in with painfully amateurish acting.

Fortunately, the actors who fill the primary roles do good work, but if you’ve seen the online ad in which Jake Hamilton of Fox called Eastwood’s performance “unforgettable,” lower your expectations. Eastwood does a noble job in “The Mule,” but only Dianne Wiest, who plays Earl’s bitter ex-wife, delivers the kind of performance that elevates a movie above the norm.

Eastwood is a skilled filmmaker who knows how to build an effective scene, but portions of “The Mule” are hampered by either poor writing, bad editing or not having the right shots.

In one sequence, Stone takes a detour while on a drug run, angering two cartel members who are following him to make sure he delivers. Road work prevents them from following Stone, although the two vehicles are eventually shown traveling together again. Only later, through a snippet of dialogue, do we learn that Stone went off-road to visit a friend.

Also confusing is a sequence in which a cartel member gives Stone an address for a delivery, but when he shows up as instructed, the men on the receiving end are enraged. Maybe I missed something, but this seemed like a failed effort at showing the dangers of the world in which Stone has become embroiled.

All that said, the biggest problem in “The Mule” is the lack of dramatic heft. Stone’s family is angry at him until they’re not, Stone continues to run drugs until the DEA agent decides it’s time to stop him and there’s a courtroom scene that takes a hard-right turn from the real-life trial, I’m guessing to make the film more palatable to mass audiences.

There are moments when Eastwood’s brilliance shines through. The way he filmed the death of a high-ranking cartel member demonstrates his skill at surprising the audience and giving a moment optimal weight. But “The Mule” needed more moments like this, and more consistency.

Although I’m confident in my assessment of “The Mule,” critics have written more good reviews than bad. If any of them could sway my opinion, it would be Kyle Smith’s write-up for National Review, which calls the movie “an oddly endearing, kind of wonderful little picture” and “Clint Eastwood’s unforgettable curtain call.”

Eastwood might be 88, but I hope “The Mule” isn’t his last movie. He’s made excellent films while in his eighties, including “American Sniper” and “Sully.” Despite stumbling with “The Mule,” I believe he has another great one in him.