By: Christian Harding (Three Beers) –
Even when compared outside his fellow actors-turned-directors, Clint Eastwood is among the most prolific working filmmakers we have today. Over a decades-long career, Eastwood is still managing to crank out multiple projects a year without so much as breaking a sweat. And while the quality and reception often varies from film to film (American Sniper famously enjoyed blockbuster-level box office success and garnered multiple Oscar nominations, but this reviewer has a soft spot for the criminally underrated Hereafter from 2010), nobody can deny the sheer discipline and dedication it takes to keep churning out so many projects at such a late age, regardless of quality. Now that brings us to another last-minute purported Oscar contender in The Mule, which has been rumored to be not only the ol’ star’s last starring role, but possibly even his final directed feature – though don’t quote me on either of those!
One of the most consistent and reliably engaging parts of Clint Eastwood’s decades-spanning filmography is always his tendency to deconstruct the otherwise overly mythologized myth of the ‘American hero’, going back to The Outlaw Josey Wales and lasting into his 21st century output. But as a longtime Eastwood viewer and fan of both his acting and directing, that tendency seems to have been dissipating over the last couple of projects, I’m sad to admit. The more evenhanded depiction of violence and human folly from his earlier works is almost nowhere to be found in his last handful of works, which seem more preoccupied with merely depicting figures of unquestioning loyalty and heroism – not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that approach. But it comes in stark contrast to the more nuanced outlook from the filmmaker’s earlier works.
Similar to another film recently covered by this reviewer, Steve McQueen’s increasingly underrated thriller Widows, The Mule also suffers from the problem of trying to have too many things going on at once. Fortunately enough in this case, it’s only a single side plot that feels tacked on and unnecessary, as opposed to the Altman-esque ensemble which plagued McQueens’ heist thriller, but nevertheless, once again a simple but effective premise isn’t enough for the writers and we’re saddled with a more sprawling, far-reaching narrative which seeks to intertwine two otherwise completely unrelated plot threads into one.
The B plot in question this time is Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena as two DEA agents who eventually catch wind of Eastwood’s racketeering and begin a pursuit to bring him to justice. While their earlier scenes aren’t that bad on their own, especially since Cooper and Pena are both likable enough performers, every time we cut away from the vastly more intriguing plot of Eastwood’s hopelessly outmatched geezer trying to survive just out of pure dumb luck, a decent amount of the momentum and tension previously built up are momentarily removed from the proceedings.
Ultimately, The Mule is a solidly enjoyable mid-level thriller. While far, far from Clint Eastwood’s best work as either an actor or a filmmaker, it’ll do just fine if you’re in the mood for it. Go in with reasonably modest expectations and you’ll be treated to an entertaining, if somewhat unmemorable experience at the theater. And if this holiday season, you get stuck seeing this with your grandparents who think the new Spider-Man is too cartoonish for them, then you could do much worse. It probably won’t measure up to a lot of the more “prestige” awards films playing alongside it, but on its own merits, The Mule does exactly what it needs to and it does it with successfully modest ambitions.
The Mule (2018) Drinking Game
Do a Shot: for each drug run.
Do another Shot: whenever Clint Eastwood goes full “grouchy old man”
One more Shot: for every insensitive colloquialism or slur which Earl uses in an offhand manner.
Shotgun a Beer: whenever the characters themselves enjoy a nice ol’ brewski.