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Movie review: ‘The Mule’ profoundly Eastwood

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    CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
    Clint Eastwood (Earl Stone), “The Mule”

Published January 16. 2019 11:53AM

Director-actor Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” is profound and is profoundly Eastwood.

It’s a caustic, cute, crazy story about an elderly man, Earl Stone (Eastwood), down on his luck and money, who gets mixed up with a Mexican drug-running cartel.

The bank has foreclosed on Earl’s greenhouse, where he meticulously and loving raises day lilies. Quicker than Eastwood’s iconic movie character Dirty Harry (Eastwood as Harry Callahan was introduced in “Dirty Harry,” 1971) can say, “Make my day,” Earl is driving his beat-up circa 1970 Ford pickup truck, with a bag of cocaine in the tonneau-covered pickup bed, to a designated motel, where he parks, stays and the morning after, retrieves a manila envelope of cash stashed in the glovebox.

In a nod to Eastwood’s other cinema icon, Earl is “The Man With No Name” (referenced in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-western trilogy, “A Fistful of Dollars,” 1964; “For a Few Dollars More,” 1965, and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” 1966) to his wife, Mary (Dianne Wiest), daughter Iris (real-life daughter Alison Eastwood), and granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga).

Earl continues to make the drug runs, using the cash to buy a brand-new black Lincoln Navigator pickup, help pay for his granddaughter’s wedding reception, and to make donations to the local VFW to prevent it from closing.

Meanwhile, Drug Enforcement Agency agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and his sidekick (Michael Peña) are tasked by their boss (Laurence Fishburne) to improve Illinois field office arrest numbers.

An informant, Luis (Eugene Cordero), puts them on the trail of a Mexican drug cartel leader (Andy Garcia) and Earl, the mule (i.e., a person who transports illegal drugs in return for payment by the person selling the drugs).

You know this is going to end badly, but “The Mule” never reveals its hand. Instead, sprinkled throughout with dollops of humor, the screenplay by Nick Schenk (National Board of Review, best screenplay recipient, “Gran Torino,” 2008, and screenwriter, “The Judge,” 2014) from a New York Times Magazine article, “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year Old Drug Mule,” about the real-life Leo Sharp, written by its assistant managing editor Sam Dolnick (“The Fourth Estate,” 2018), keeps you guessing and involved as it ratchets up the tension with every scene. It’s a “Dirtier Harry.”

Eastwood, who will be 89 on May 31, directs with a spare and knowing style. His 40 theatrical motion picture and television director credits include Oscar recipient, picture, director, “Million Dollar Baby,” 2004, and Oscar recipient, picture and director, “Unforgiven,” 1992. Eastwood’s other recent theatrical motion picture directorial efforts include “Sully,” 2016; “American Sniper,” 2014; “Gran Torino,” and “Mystic River,” 2003.

Eastwood last acted in “Trouble With the Curve,” 2012, directed by Robert Lorenz. “The Mule” is Eastwood’s first starring role in a film he directed since “Gran Torino.” “The Mule” is Eastwood’s second directorial effort in a year, after “The 15:17 to Paris,” 2018.

Eastwood, working with Director of Photography Yves Bélanger (“Brooklyn,” 2015; “Dallas Buyers Club,” 2013; “Wild,” 2014), doesn’t spare himself. This is a gaunt, camera-weary Eastwood, with a jagged smile, and a face as wrinkled as morning bedsheets. His shoulders are stooped. His body appears frail. His walk is shuffling. His voice is wheezy. He wears a straw gardening hat more becoming on a woman (oddly recalling the black hat of The Man With No Name). And yet Eastwood projects a solidity beyond most mortals, much less actors.

This is an Oscar-worthy performance. Eastwood also deserves an Oscar director nomination.

Eastwood has some great scenes with Cooper, especially one where they sit at a counter at a Waffle House, and Eastwood ruminates on the cost of time, and time well-spent, and another scene with Cooper at the end of Earl’s run.

Eastwood also shines in scenes with Wiest, who counterbalances his enthusiasm with the rueful resignation of a woman left behind. Earl has traveled to 41 of the 50 states in the United States, rarely boarding in the state of family.

Supporting performances by Alison Eastwood, Farmiga, Fishburne, Peña and Garcia are excellent, as are a most-wanted list of drug dealers, including actors Manny Montana, Clifton Collins Jr., Ignacio Serricchio, Victor Rasuk, Robert LaSardo, Noel Gugliemi and Daniel Moncada.

“The Mule” is devastatingly good. Seeing “The Mule” is time well-spent. Don’t miss it.

“The Mule,” MPAA Rated R (Restricted Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them.) for language throughout and brief sexuality-nudity; Genre: Crime, Drama; Run time: 1 hr., 56 min. Distributed by Warner Bros.

Credit Readers Anonymous: “Don’t Let the Old Man In” by Toby Keith is heard during “The Mule” closing credits, a thoughtful coda to an incredible film.

Box Office, Jan. 11-13: “The Upside,” opening at No. 1 with $19.5 million, one week, proved to be the downside of “Aquaman,” dropping after three weeks at No. 1 to No. 2 with $17.2 million, $287.8 million four weeks, as “A Dog’s Way Home” opened at No. 3 with $11.3 million, one week.

4. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” again clung to No. 4, this time with $9 million, $147.7 million, five weeks. 5. “Escape Room” ran down three places, $8.9 million, $32.4 million, two weeks. 6. “Mary Poppins Returns” floated down three places, $7.2 million, $150.6 million, four weeks. 7. “Bumblebee” buzzed down two places, $6.7 million, $108.4 million, four weeks. 8. “On the Basis of Sex” moved up eight places, $6.2 million, $10.5 million, four weeks. 9. “The Mule” clomped down three places, $5.5 million, $90.5 million, five weeks. 10. “Vice” slipped down three places, $3.2 million, weekend, $35.9 million, three weeks.

Unreel, Jan. 18:

“Glass,” PG-13: M. Night Shyamalan directs Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, James McAvoy, Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in the sci-fi thriller. In the third installment of the trilogy (“Split,” 2017; “Unbreakable,” 2000), security guard David Dunn’s supernatural powers track down Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with 24 personalities. “Glass” was filmed on location at the former Allentown State Hospital. A petition to save the hospital from demolition has been mounted.

“Arctic Justice,” No MPAA Rating. Aaron Woodley directs the voice talents of James Franco, Jeremy Renner, Alec Baldwin and Anjelica Huston in the animated comedy. A group of Arctic misfits try to prevent Von Walrus’ plans to take over the world.

Five popcorn boxes out of five popcorn boxes.

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