PLOT An elderly gardener becomes an unlikely drug trafficker for a Mexican cartel.
CAST Clint Eastwood, Dianne Wiest, Bradley Cooper
RATED R (language, some violence)
BOTTOM LINE A bittersweet companion piece to Eastwood’s “Gran Torino.”
Exasperating, endearing, less than sensitive but 100 percent authentic — that’s Earl Stone, the hero of “The Mule,” and that’s Clint Eastwood, the film’s director and star. The story of an elderly man who becomes an unlikely cocaine courier, “The Mule” sees Eastwood still playing to type as the rugged American male. What’s impressive is how gracefully he’s aging into the role and, at 88, even stretching himself slightly as an actor.
Earl marks Eastwood’s first on-screen role since 2012's “Trouble With The Curve,” but "The Mule" feels more like a sequel to his “Gran Torino” (2008). A spiritual cousin to that film’s cantankerous Walt Kowalski, Earl Stone is a proverbial dinosaur in a world of new cultural norms and portable technology. Stone is a Korean War vet but also, oddly, a professional day-lily farmer. Compared to past Eastwood characters, then, he’s less a hardnose, more a gregarious charmer in a seersucker suit and bow tie. (A bow tie! On Clint!)
When his business goes belly-up (“Damn internet, it kills everything,” he growls), Earl turns to crime. It seems easy, and it definitely pays. He shows up to a sketchy auto shop, banters with the gun-toting Mexicans, then hauls away a few duffel bags. The next day, thousands in cash appear in his glove compartment. Earl becomes such a cop-proof drug mule — Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña play the DEA agents who can’t seem to catch him — that eventually the kingpin Laton (Andy Garcia) brings him to Mexico for a night of wine and women. It’s one of the film’s best moments: Earl doddering around like George Burns at the Playboy Mansion. (The film’s jaunty, jazzy score is by Arturo Sandoval.)
One objection: It’s clearly important to Eastwood that Earl come across as a benevolent racist. In some cases Earl seems merely clueless, as when he calls a young couple “Negroes” or mistakes a lesbian biker for a man. His Mexican slurs are intentional, though. This stuff was more excusable from Walt in “Gran Torino,” who eventually helped defend the Asian neighbors he once slurred, but things feel different here. Earl, and the movie itself, genuinely seem to miss the old days when racist jokes could be excused as all in good fun.
Rounding out this sunset-years crime drama is an excellent Dianne Wiest as Mary, the ex-wife that Earl neglected to his great regret. With barely a handful of scenes, Wiest imbues this movie with a deep poignancy. Despite a few objectionable moments, “The Mule” is solidly crafted, consistently compelling and often quite moving — which is to say, it’s Eastwood through and through.