Over the past decade, we’ve become accustomed to seeing Clint Eastwood playing the role of a gruff curmudgeon, ranging from Gran Torino to Trouble with the Curve.

Whilst he’s not quite as grumpy in The Mule, in which he directed a script from Nick Schenk, his character still retains a rough edge. He plays Earl Stone here, a 90-year-old horticulturist and Korean War veteran who is estranged from his family, stemming from his failure to attend his daughter’s (Alison Eastwood, the director’s own daughter) wedding. He subsequently faces financial hardship, leading to a verbal spat with his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) at his granddaughter’s (Taissa Farmiga) engagement party. 

The argument peaks the interest of one of the party’s attendees, who realises he can strike up a mutually beneficial relationship with Earl; the latter expresses his love for driving, and ends up accepting the job to deliver some cargo for some shady individuals. At first unaware of what he’s delivering, Earl revels in the stacks of money he’s earning, before his curiosity gets the better of him; to his surprise (but not the audience’s), he realises he’s now being used as a drug-mule. 

With the runs being more lucrative as they go along, Earl uses his newfound financial security as a way of providing for his family, making up for all the time he’s missed. This is where the film is at its best, with the gentle pace and breezy tone meaning the action bounces along nicely, even if it never truly lands a narrative punch. There are obvious comparisons to Robert Redford’s swansong in The Man & The Gun, with Eastwood’s own musings on lost time giving off a similar vibe, even if he is still content on working well into his eighties. 

The similarities with David Lowery’s film don’t end there; much like Casey Affleck’s role in tracking down Redford, Earl’s drug-runs arouse the suspicion of local DEA agents, with Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena tasked with taking down the cartel. Though these scenes are adequately staged and acted, they do feel largely inconsequential, with the charming tone regarding Earl’s personal life meaning any potential repercussions lack true dramatic heft.

Much like Earl, the film sets into a comfortable routine, flickering between the runs, the family scenes and then the law’s enforcement investigation. At a slightly overlong 116-minutes, the repetition doesn’t really help matters, but Eastwood’s charming performance as Earl is the glue that holds it all together. HIs outdated attitudes are largely played for laughs, but his rapport with cartel members is humorous with an added sense of care; whilst they help him with technology and texting, he is a welcome breath of fresh air in a ruthless industry.

Despite a slightly queasy attitude towards women, the old-man-in-new-world trope is tastefully done, with this being linked nicely to his troubles with his family. Despite being somewhat slight, The Mule possesses an easy-going charm that brings a unique story to the screen, with Eastwood showing he still has something to offer both in front and behind the camera.   

 

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