The Mule

It’s weird that as I was driving to see Clint Eastwood’s latest movie at the Reading Town Square, I heard on the radio about his long-time former girlfriend Sondra Locke dying. It made it a bit harder to buy Eastwood playing a man who, late in this movie, regrets how horribly he treated his wife and daughter. You have to wonder if he, as the producer and director as well, thought about Locke or any of his previous wives as he made this. Especially since Locke had to sue him (in a few cases that were settled out of court), because among other things, he tried to derail her career as a director. But hey…Eastwood cast his daughter Alison in this, so maybe his real life character is trying to make things right, the way his onscreen character is.

Now, onto the movie. I wasn’t expecting much because this wasn’t screened for the critics, and we weren’t sent DVDs to review. That’s never a good sign. And, watching Eastwood play these old coots, has gotten old. I was disappointed with Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, and Trouble with the Curve. I thought this would be much the same. Imagine my surprise when he played a character that was different from ones he’s played before. He’s an 90-year-old horticulturist (and is finally starting to look his age), who seems to love flowers (and friends) more than he ever loved his family.

This was inspired by an article in the New York Times called “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule.” Perhaps Eastwood doing movies on real people, with actual actors, is the way to go. 15:17 to Paris was a disaster, but American Sniper was great. And, Eastwood brought along Sniper star Bradley Cooper for this, who does a great job underplaying an FBI agent on his trail.

What makes this all work is that it isn’t the same time of old codger barking at everyone around him. He’s actually a bit venerable, naive, and at times funny and thoughtful. He might say some un-PC things to a lesbian biker group, but his heart was in the right place. The same with the incident involving him helping a black couple that has a flat tire.

The movie does have a few flaws, but you enjoy watching it and are willing to let those slide. It has such a great cast. And, it’s always nice to see a man in his late 90s involved in a menage a trois (with two different sets of women at two different times). You wonder why they didn’t write a scene like that for Wilford Brimley in Cocoon.

Dianne Wiest plays the ex-wife, and her character was poorly written. They made her too much of a nag, and it makes the audience dislike her. In one scene, she gets into an argument with him as he’s about to attend a granddaughter’s event. She then storms off. Well, even if she’s right in what she’s mad about, doesn’t that then make her the bad guy for ruining another person’s party?

When Earl (Eastwood) has his business/house foreclosed, he needs to make some money quick. He makes a drug run and gets some cash, which makes his granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) happy. Of course, she (and the rest of his friends and family) don’t know what he’s doing.

Seeing Earl roll up to a tire shop that’s a front for a Mexican gang, only to fumble around with a cell phone and talk about how he can’t text…surprisingly worked. Although, the script feels like it could’ve used a re-write or second draft (rumor has it this was quickly made from a first draft). But it’s not like his Hereafter, which was unwatchable.

I wasn’t aware of the cast going into this, and each time someone showed up on screen, it was a pleasant surprise. Michael Pena as a DEA agent working with Cooper. And as they’re trying to track down this drug runner…I started thinking about how disappointed I was with Redford’s The Old Man & The Gun. He claims that will be his last movie. And this could be Eastwood’s last. Yet his character does interesting stuff. Redford just waltzed through his picture drinking coffee, winking, and…we’re all just supposed to adore this bank robber because…well, he’s Robert Redford.

Andy Garcia is great in his scenes as the head of a cartel. He’s either dancing with scantily clad women by the pool, or more often skeet shooting, with a gold rifle in one hand, and a huge cigar in the other. It was the epitome of cool. It’s also refreshing that he seems to genuinely like and care about Earl.

Laurence Fishburne, who I love (check him out in Last Flag Flying from a few years ago)…was wasted in his part. He’s the DEA boss, who basically spends his 3 or 4 scenes saying things like “We need some arrests” or “Okay, go ahead with the bust.”

Clifton Collins, Jr., one of the most underrated character actors working today, also wasn’t given enough to do.

There’s a Robin Hood aspect to the story, when Earl finds out about a fire at a VFW hall he hangs out in, and he throws some money into the building. Part of that left a bad taste in my mouth, as it’s a pet peeve of mine when filmmakers want us to like the criminals because they “have a good heart.” (I recall Eastwood doing that with Kevin Costner as a criminal in A Perfect World from 1993). Yet it never got overbearing, and it felt like something his character would do. I also thought of another movie — Going in Style. Those oldsters robbed a bank because they were bored. They figured…the worst thing that happens is going to prison, which wouldn’t be as bad as sitting on the park bench wondering why your kids don’t call.

Yet I suppose what made me like this more than I thought I would was…when I think of other movies it reminded me of, and how they got it better here. Jack Nicholson not getting along with his family and trying to make things right in The Bucket List. That was an awful film; or…when Earl says racist things (he starts the movie telling these Latino gardeners they were driving a “taco wagon” and look like they want to get deported). The script was written by the guy that had Eastwood saying racist stuff in Gran Torino that was so over-the-top, it became cartoonish and idiotic.

And one last movie I want to compare this to, is the last thing we saw Burt Reynolds in — The Last Movie Star. Now, Eastwood and Reynolds were friends and started out in Hollywood as stuntmen together. It was nice to see Reynolds play an aging movie star realizing how bad he screwed up in life and trying to make amends.

Eastwood is playing a criminal/tough guy with a heart of gold that’s finally doing the right thing (well, sort of). In the final scene, you’ll be thinking of about 10 different Eastwood flicks. It’s a wonderful closing shot.

3 stars out of 5. It’s not perfect, but it’s a fun time at the movies.