Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Mule’ Tells Fascinating True Story of an Old Timer Turned Cartel Runner 

The Mule ” has quite a way of exploring the idea that you’re never too old to try something new. It tells the fascinating true story of a man nearing 90 who finds one of the most out-of-the-mainstream gigs you could ever get. He agrees to be a smuggler or “mule” for a Mexican drug cartel, seeming at first to be oblivious to what that entails. This is a refreshing offering from Clint Eastwood, still going strong in his twilight years and circling back now to the kind of character he is most associated with, the tough guy. But in this movie the macho persona is more laid back, capable of making fun of himself even as he gets into a dicey situation. As a director Eastwood also mines this story for some surprisingly endearing drama.

Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a Korean War veteran who has spent most of his life living to the beat of his own drum. Working obsessively in horticulture, he was never much around for his wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) or daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood). Now broke and facing foreclosure, Earl again looks bad since he had promised to help pay for the wedding of his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). But at a small gathering a Mexican accompanying one of the future bridesmaids approaches Earl with an offer for quick cash. Since he has no tickets or criminal record, Earl would make the perfect driver for this particular job. Earl takes it and finds himself meeting a group of ominous, tattooed Mexican men at an auto shop who load mysterious bags into his truck and give him a cell phone with instructions for a drop off (poor Earl doesn’t even know how to text). When Earl realizes how much he is getting paid for this simple task he keeps coming back to do more, eventually gaining a reputation both at home, where he starts spending money on friends, and in the high ranks of the Sinaloa Cartel, whose cocaine Earl is breezily transporting across the country. Eventually the cartel boss (Andy Garcia) wants to meet Earl and show his gratitude with women and perks. But Earl will also catch the attention of DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), who needs to make a big bust.

Eastwood began 2018 with the one-dimensional “The 15:17 to Paris,” about Americans traveling in Europe who stop a terrorist on a train. That was a shallow movie that felt like a typical Eastwood celebration of American masculinity. With “The Mule” Eastwood revisits some of his classic kitsch but adds some fresh humor and heartfelt sense of reflection. The screenplay is by Nick Schenk, who also wrote “Gran Torino,” the 2008 hit where Eastwood directed himself as a cranky, racist Korean War veteran who takes on local Asian thugs. This is the flip side of that character. Earl is also a man from his time, cranky about modern technology and politically incorrect when joking with other ethnicities.  But he’s not a mean guy, in fact he’s very lively, still going to conventions, flirting with the ladies and proud of knowing how to enjoy life. We get the sense his loose nature is also part of why he lacked the discipline to raise his family. When Earl first meets his narco contacts at the auto shop, there’s not much of an ominous feeling because he seems oblivious to the nature of the job. He’s so easy going these violent, underworld misfits can’t help but like the guy. One of the smugglers, Emilio (Robert LaSardo) lovingly takes to calling him “Big Papa,” and soon his codename is “Tata,” a Spanish slang for “grandpa.” When the cartel sends a more ruthless handler, Julio (Ignacio Serricchio), to follow Earl to see just how good he is, he can’t believe the old man likes to stop for a burger or to help a family with a flat tire. If this weren’t a criminal enterprise, Earl could qualify as having one of the most relaxing jobs around. Eastwood includes nice vistas of the White Sands National Park, Texas prairies and other spots Earl drives through, snacking and singing along to Sinatra. He handles moments where highway police might get close to sniffing him out with the practiced charm of someone who has lived a long stretch.

“The Mule” has a fine balance of multiple tones and story angles that makes the film absorbing. On one level this is an oddly fascinating true crime story, taken from a New York Times Magazine article named “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule” by Sam Dolnick. But while we get the usual narco paraphernalia, including gold-plated firearms, Eastwood’s presentation of the drug underworld is more complex. We get the feeling this is a corporate business like any other, albeit illegal and run by violence.  Notice how the lower level thugs at the auto shop who befriend Earl are worker ants who endure verbal abuse from a barking boss like Julio. Even Andy Garcia’s drug kingpin would be kind of likeable as a partying CEO if his business were not so tainted in blood. The script also treats racism in a way you don’t see in a typical crime thriller. Earl may be an old timer who thinks saying words like “beaner” in jest is fine, but there’s a moment where a bluntly racist police officer stops Julio and Earl finds himself compelled to intervene. The Bradley Cooper cop angle is the one part of the film that feels routine. Cooper has fun with the role, but he’s here to do the usual such as getting a snitch to help him keep track of the cartel’s activities and eventually pinpoint that there’s a new, top notch mule doing runs. But he also has a fantastic scene with Eastwood where the two speak at a diner, unaware of who each is, exchanging words of wisdom and Eastwood riffing on the theme of age and regrets.

The other great level to this film is how the drug smuggling recedes behind the more endearing story of how Earl, now late in years, begins to reflect on having failed his family. With his newfound financial gains, Earl tries to slowly make amends, but not before Mary continuously and sarcastically reminds him of his failings. Only his granddaughter adores him, warts and all. Eastwood’s performance is lively and by the end full of empathy.

“The Mule” treats its true story with just enough humor to capture the oddity of it all then arrives at a surprisingly moving climax. Life always trumps fiction. Earl Stone saw an easy gig and took it, and for a time crime did indeed pay. This is one of the best recent films by an old timer who himself has traveled many roads.

The Mule” opens Dec. 14 in theaters nationwide.