A decade ago Clint Eastwood said it. He downright insisted he was hanging up his acting spurs and that Gran Torino would be his final turn in front of the camera. A perfect swansong too - humorous, elegiac, tragic, humane... For ten whole years he held to his plan, taking on directing jobs only. But now here he is as 90-year-old Earl Stone in The Mule, saying he couldn't find anyone else old enough and still alive to play the role. Fair enough - the film's a rattling good yarn after all and quite in step with the Clint legacy.
Written by Nick Schenk, Eastwood's collaborator on Gran Torino, The Mule takes its inspiration from a New York Times Magazine article concerning an elderly drug mule working for a Mexican cartel. The film's Earl is a horticulturalist and one-time travelling salesman, who's a much bigger hit with his wider social circle than with the family he neglected over decades. Faced with his house's foreclosure at the same time as his granddaughter's wedding, he takes a one-off driving delivery job, no questions asked, for an anonymous party. The work turns regular, even when the naive Earl confirms his suspicions as to what he's actually transporting. But soon the investigations of a hot-shot new DEA agent (Bradley Cooper) threaten to complicate matters for elderly drug-runner known as 'El Tata'.
I'll admit I'm a sucker for this movie. I've been a Clint Eastwood fan for more years than I care to specify, so it's great to see him in action one more time - leaner and more stooped than ever before, but with that knotty strength barely diminished and his screen presence totally intact. His charisma lends itself to Earl - a game old roue and lover of life, who engages your sympathy for all his glaring personality flaws. Clint's eye as a director is functioning well too, so that he's created a solid road movie and understated thriller, one that makes the most of its rural Illinois backdrops. Earl's story unfolds in leisurely style, but you're never less than invested in the old reprobate's progress. Scenes where he spars with his bemused and vastly younger criminal associates are a particular joy, though one where he enjoys the fruits of his illegal labours with nubile young company is - well - unnecessary.Claims that the film is just too unhurried have justification. The scenes with Cooper, his partner (Michael Pena) and boss (Laurence Fishburne) move the plot along, but lack any kind of dramatic bite. It's a serious shame to have actors of this calibre on board, when the screenplay gives their dialogue no spark whatsoever. Dianne Wiest fares better as Earl's ex-wife Mary (as with Clint it's great to see the one-time Woody Allen regular back in the movies); the scenes between them dice with over-sentimentality, but get away with it - just.
The Mule really revs up when Earl is on the road, singing along to olde tyme radio songs like he's on vacation rather than transporting sizeable quantities of illegal drugs. It's like writer Schenk came into his own when crafting the elderly reprobate's exploits, including the latter stages when events take a darker turn. The result is a likeable film which touches on themes of mortality and regret to moving effect, while still holding out hope for a rambunctious, life-embracing old-age. And it's buoyed up by that additional, unexpected turn by Eastwood. Maybe this one will really be his last. You know, I kind of hope not.
Gut Reaction: I smiled, a lot, that in his upper eighties Clint can still own it like he did back in the Josey Wales days.
Memorable Moment: Oh-oh. Sniffer dog...
Ed's Verdict: 6.5/10. While The Mule doesn't have the dramatic and thematic weight as Gran Torino, it's still an enjoyably tall tale. And did I mention Clint Eastwood is terrific?