Review: Clint Eastwood's 'The Mule' feels rushed

Eastwood plays a drug runner in his first on-screen role since 2012, but the film never reaches its potential

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Clint Eastwood in "The Mule."

See Clint scowl. See Clint drive. See Clint deliver hundreds of kilos of cocaine for a Mexican drug cartel. 

"The Mule" is straightforward and matter of fact, just like Clint Eastwood himself. At 88, the Hollywood icon doesn't have a lot of time to sit around and mull over details. Cut it, print it, move on. 

As such, "The Mule" — which is Eastwood's second directorial effort this year, following February's "The 15:17 to Paris" — feels like a rush-job. With some finessing, this story of an octogenarian horticulturist who becomes a drug runner could have had a more emotional sweep. But the drama of the story never takes hold and its resolution feels too tidy, dulling its impact. 

Eastwood, in his first screen role in six years, plays Earl Stone, a champion daylily grower in Illinois. Stone has never been much of a family man; he has a strained relationship with his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Weist), and his estranged daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood, Clint's real-life daughter) refuses to speak with him. Only his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) still has any faith left in him. 

When Stone runs into money problems — he's put out of business by his refusal to adapt to an online world — he takes a one-off job as a driver, delivering a package across the country. He doesn't ask any questions, and the money is good. So he continues, trades in his beat-up Ford pickup for a murdered out Lincoln truck and is soon running big shipments of drugs across the U.S.

Meanwhile, DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) is under pressure from his boss (Laurence Fishburne) to score a big bust. Along with his partner (Michael Peña), Colin tracks major drug shipments and zeroes in on his target, not knowing the guy he's chasing down is in his 80s. 

Based on the true story of Leo Sharp, who was caught with 228 pounds of cocaine by Michigan State Police in 2011, "The Mule" positions itself as a redemption story, focusing on Stone's attempts to fix things with his family before it's too late. (The story's local references have been scrubbed.) 

It's all a little too easy and never digs in deep. But Eastwood lets the humor of the story shine through, helping lighten the tale. There are long shots of Stone driving, singing along to the tunes on his radio; even the cartel members assigned to track him can't help but join in on a chorus of Dean Martin's "Ain't That a Kick in the Head." He builds decent relationships with the drug dealers who load up his truck, and they teach him how to text. 

Stone's blunt manner and casual racism are used as a comedic device and are meant to illustrate the way this old dog is out of step with today's world.  

Meanwhile, Stone cavorts with several ladies while partying with cartel bosses in Mexico, and takes up with a pair of prostitutes in a roadside motel. This is a man that knows what he's doing, he's unapologetic, and when it comes time to face the music, he does so like a man. (Would Eastwood go out any other way?) 

"The Mule" has a softer touch than Eastwood's 2009 hit "Gran Torino," but it doesn't reach its full dramatic potential. The scenes with Stone's family are too thin, and there was a better game of cat and mouse to have built up with the Feds. A little nuance and it could have gotten there, but Eastwood's already moving on.


'The Mule'


Rated R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity

Running time: 116 minutes