At this point, it’s hard to take an actor seriously when he or she announces retirement from being in front of the camera. Recently, there was news going around that Robert Redford won’t star in another movie after The Old Man and the Gun. While that may be true for the time being, there was another person who claimed to be retiring from acting, only to reemerge years after making that statement. In 2008, Clint Eastwood said he would no longer star in a movie after Gran Torino. And while more of his time is now dedicated to working behind the camera, he still finds a way to put himself in an acting role - albeit not as often. He had a more supporting part with 2012’s Trouble with the Curve and then took another hiatus before placing himself as the lead for 2018’s The Mule.
It seems that Eastwood hasn’t fully retired from acting and probably never will. But it appears he also only aims to put himself in front of the camera when the right role calls to him. Sure enough, The Mule is the exact type of role that is tailor-made for the 88-year-old filmmaker and actor. He’s not exactly the tough, consistently grumpy old man type he was when he played Walter Kowalski, but the screenplay by Nick Schenk (who also penned Gran Torino) gives Eastwood the opportunity to be as expressive and as politically incorrect as he pleases. It also gives him some dramatic heft that allows Eastwood to explore the deeper issues of his character, such as reflection and regret.
Inspired by a true story, The Mule tells the story of Earl Stone (Eastwood), a horticulturist who was, at one point, extremely into getting recognition from those in the industry. But there were sacrifices that were made along the way. Earl gave up on being a father and a husband just to keep his business going and to rub shoulders with the big names. Now in his 80s, and with his business closed, Earl does what he can to get back into good graces with his ex-wife, Mary (Dianne Wiest), and estranged daughter, Iris (played by real-life daughter Alison Eastwood). His granddaughter, Ginny (Taisa Farmiga), still loves Earl, despite his shortcomings, and invites him to her engagement party.
One could view The Mule as semi-autobiographical for Eastwood in the fact that his love life has always been rocky. The twice-divorced father of eight is one of the hardest working stars in Hollywood, but the fact that his children are from six different women makes one question his personal life choices. Not that it really matters, nor is it truly worthy of a deep investigation. But, for the sake of The Mule, one could easily say this is Eastwood’s way of trying to make amends with everyone he’s wronged in the past.
It’s at the engagement party in which Earl meets one of Ginny’s friends, who refers Earl to a special job. He doesn’t explain what it is - only that there’s a lot of money involved. Earl takes the job, which turns out to be the drug runner, or “mule,” for a Mexican cartel. What was supposed to be a one-time thing turns into a full time job for Earl, as he becomes the best mule this cartel has ever seen. He becomes so good that it even gets the attention of DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and his team (Laurence Fishburne and Michael Peña among them).
Eastwood is no stranger to bringing true stories to the big screen, which has been most of his filmography over the last decade. During that same timeframe, he has also made some questionable directorial decisions. Most recently, the train wreck that was The 15:17 to Paris saw the story’s real heroes portray themselves. Eastwood’s one-take approach to filmmaking - meaning one shot of the scene before moving onto the next - didn’t work for the non-actors. For the veterans in The Mule, such as himself, Cooper, Fishburne, and others, it’s no issue. Even in the short amount of time that Eastwood went from filming to getting the final product into theaters, he is still able to get terrific performances from those involved.
The DEA subplot lacks the intrigue that Earl’s story has, despite the strong performances from Cooper, Fishburne, and Peña. It’s whenever Eastwood is on screen making runs or cracking jokes that The Mule is an absolute blast to watch. Once paths are crossed, though, Eastwood is able to deliver a knockout moment that has him and Cooper sitting in a diner, going over the importance of family instead of work.
Some of Eastwood’s direction is a bit on the nose, as he chooses songs such as “On the Road Again” and “I’ve Been Everywhere” as the music Earl listens to when he’s making his runs. The family issue gets brought up on more than one occasion, but Eastwood doesn’t pummel the viewer with its message. It tap dances on that line, but doesn’t quite cross it.
The Mule isn’t exactly a perfect film, but it is one of Eastwood’s better efforts in recent years. It carries a lot of his trademarks - from the beautiful yet simplistic cinematography to the minimalistic yet impactful score. And seeing Eastwood in front of the camera proves that he is almost always a welcome presence.
The Blu-ray release for The Mule comes with a 1080p high definition, 16x9 widescreen presentation and a 2.4:1 aspect ratio. It’s a terrific transfer, as it captures the lighting and color perfectly. The audio is 5.1 surround sound and has no noticeable issues. Sadly, there are only two special features with the film’s release. One is Making of The Mule: Nobody Runs Forever, which is a 10-minute, behind-the-scenes look at the film and features interviews with Eastwood and others. The other is a music video for Toby Keith’s “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” which was created exclusively for the film.
It’s unclear if The Mule will truly be the last time we see Eastwood in front of the camera. But it also reminds us just how great of an actor he can be. It’s a treat watching him onscreen in a thriller that is both tense and funny. The hardcore Eastwood enthusiasts will be pleased with this one.