Review: The Mule

For reasons that are easier to understand than explain, Clint Eastwood is probably considered the most important American director by the Japanese film cognoscenti. Even his minor works, the ones that obviously play to the rafters, get listed on annual top ten lists as a matter of course. The Mule will certainly be no exception, despite the fact that its ambiguous take on the War On Drugs clashes starkly with the Japanese attitude toward illicit drugs in general. That’s not necessarily a demerit when it comes to cinematic depictions, but locals might take away conclusions that weren’t intended.

For one thing, in spite of the overhanging themes of impending mortality and moral compasses gone awry, The Mule is something of a human comedy. Based sketchily on a true story, the plot follows the late career fortunes of an Illinois flower wholesaler named Earl Stone (Eastwood) whose business success contrasts mightily with his failures as a husband and father—yeah, another one of those Eastwood characters. Eastwood’s peculiarly effective style of exposition works exceptionally well when it shows how Stone’s prosperity is quickly undermined at the turn of the century by the ascent of internet commerce, which eventually makes his work obsolete. By the 20-minute mark Stone is scraping by on Social Security and dodging creditors. But he’s got a nice truck and at one point is approached by a Mexican gentleman who offers him a transport job. All he has to do is “drive.” Having been a free spirit all his life, Stone is hep to the offer, but it isn’t immediately clear that he will be carrying drugs from Mexico into the U.S. for the deadly Sinaloa cartel.

Though Eastwood and his screenwriter, Nick Schenk, don’t obviate the evil behind the operation, they let Stone off the hook continually, and often try the viewer’s patience with nonsense that seems to have no purpose except to prove that old coots like Earl can still enjoy life, even with ill-gotten gains. There is not one, but two scenes of Stone enjoying sex in motel rooms with much younger women. And Stone’s road trips are presented as something out of a Kerouac fantasia. The nominal bad guys are humanized rather than demonized, but you get the feeling that’s only so that Stone can make jokes with them and come across as less of a social leech. Like many an Eastwood character, Stone starts out at least borderline racist and later warms to his Mexican colleagues, even if some of them have obviously murdered without compunction. Andy Garcia, as the kingpin who can’t wait to meet this senior citizen who’s doing such great work—and being paid well for it—is such a softie his proxy killings feel like misdemeanors.

And while the movie develops in substance when it introduces two DEA agents (Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena) who finally figure Stone out, the script, perhaps at Eastwood’s insistence, still dips fitfully into the family values trough that undergird every one of the director’s films. It’s as predictable as the Eastwood smirk, and twice as annoying. The Mule has so much potential that you wonder if it lost about twenty minutes of what constitutes unnecessary plotlines it might not have been a minor masterpiece along the lines of Gran Torino. As it stands, it’s simply Trouble With the Curve but with more geezer moxie.

Opens March 8 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Marunouchi Picadilly (03-3201-2881), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Mule home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Warner Bros.

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