The criminal in spotlight in The Mule is an octogenarian horticulturist from Peoria, Illinois named Earl Stone. He gets a kick out of working for a drug cartel that considers him a safe risk—until he isn’t. Clint Eastwood is so believable as Earl that when the cops from the Federal Drug Administration led by Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena turn the tables, you don’t want them to.
You get to watch Eastwood in role that follows in the footsteps of Robert Redford’s ageing, fun-loving bank robber in The Old Man and the Gun. You empathise with them, want them to succeed, and you regret it when they don’t. The moral dilemma of playing a criminal distributing controlled substances contributing to the current epidemic in the war against drugs aside, Earl sees the error of his ways too late for any rational justification. The ostensible Earl is a slightly softer figure, but he’s still a man who’s guilty of neglecting his family —he’s despised by his ex-wife, Mary (Dianne Wiest), and by his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood, the director’s own daughter). He quickly disappoints his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) when she gives him a chance to re-enter her life.
Based on the true story of Leo Sharp, which was chronicled in The New York Times by Sam Dolnick, the film is written by Nick Schenk. Renamed Earl Stone, Sharp’s story remains essentially the same- a war veteran and a horticulturist who becomes a drug runner in his late 80s at the behest of a Mexican drug cartel. His advanced age, years of experience driving around the country, and a spotless criminal record lead him to become one of the cartel’s most prized assets.
Schenk’s screenplay is mostly an entertaining mixture of comedy and drama devoted to making us like good old Earl. We watch him drinking beer and sharing his bed with two prostitutes at a time provided by the cartel boss (Andy Garcia). We go with him on the road in the driver’s seat, singing along with pop tunes on the truck radio to deliver hundreds of kilos of cocaine worth billions of dollars. He displays both a working knowledge of Spanish that prevents the latinos from taking advantage of him and a profound ignorance of the political awareness that has changed the world around him when he wasn’t looking.
A shade softer than Eastwood's 2009 hit Gran Torino, The Mule falls short of reaching a full dramatic potential. Family scenes are too thin, and the scenes with feds could be built up a little more. A little nuance and it could have gotten there, but Eastwood's already moving on.