Well, it’s a new year, and I’m keeping my tradition of kicking things off with a Clint Eastwood review. I think Warner Brothers may know about this practice, because they keep releasing his new movies at the end of December. (It’s not for Oscars – I heard they didn’t even screen this one for critics.)
Clint has been directing for almost 50 years. You don’t think of him as a guy who changes with the times, but he’s doing something to stay relevant at least some of the time. Here’s a guy from a couple eras ago still working while we have a cultural movement toward taking stock of our pop culture heroes, in some cases realizing that they were assholes the whole time, or worse. We find out about some horrible shit they’ve gotten away with or they say some shitty thing that makes us reconsider our respect for them.
This accountability is a good thing. Nobody should get away with abusing others just by being a movie star or rich or whatever. Personally I try not to have an itchy trigger finger on the “cancel” button though because I think there needs to be room for context and growth and making amends, if and when possible. But if you start to think some movie star has been a toxic force on the earth maybe it’s harder to enjoy watching them, say, appear in a weirdly titled Chinese propaganda movie starring Mike Tyson. I understand separating the art from the artist, but I can’t always do it.
Which brings me to Clint, who has been a hero of mine for many years and has also earned scorn in his eighties with that weird appearance at the Republican convention, his dumb anti-Obama (though carefully not necessarily pro-Trump) comments in interviews, and the inexcusable things he did to Sondra Locke that we’ve been reminded of after her recent passing. In this case, so far, the flaws of the man have not destroyed my love for his art. I guess he already prepared us for this when UNFORGIVEN told us to dump our heroic image of macho men. To me his work is primarily about looking closer at complicated people. In his movies people are never perfect, but rarely worthless, and there’s more nuance to things than you notice at first glance. He often starts out with a macho world view, then shows that things aren’t so simple. He often tells stories of stubborn men who realize their shortcomings and try to redeem themselves a little. I don’t think he wants to judge people.
Isn’t it amazing to think that UNFORGIVEN was, at the time, a movie where Clint was an old man looking back on his past with different eyes, and now it’s 26 god damn years later and he’s still directing movies? He was 62 then – that’s how old Tom Hanks is right now. UNFORGIVEN is as old now as THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY was when he made UNFORGIVEN.
In a sense, THE MULE – the new movie Clint directed and stars in – deconstructs the Old Clint persona like UNFORGIVEN deconstructed his earlier westerns. Clint plays Earl Stone, an award winning grower of day-lily flowers who, after losing his business, starts driving huge loads of cocaine for a drug cartel. Sounds crazy, but it’s based on a real guy. Like so many Clint characters Earl is a charming hotshot, an emotionally distant failure with his family, a politically incorrect man out of time. But on this go ’round Clint removes any semblance of coolness or toughness, and that changes everything. Even in his element, at a flower growers convention, he’s a dork hobbling around in a white suit telling not even dad jokes, but grandpa jokes. He makes people laugh and swoon in ways that GRAN TORINO‘s Walt Kowalski would’ve found infuriatingly condescending. His voice is alarmingly weak and wispy even before the story skips ahead 12 years. For most of the movie he’s 90 years old (don’t worry, in real life Clint is a mere 88).
Earl and Walt are both Korean war vets. But the joke with Walt is that people underestimate him, he’s a tough bastard, he really will make you get off his lawn. Earl I’m pretty sure would break if he fell over. Threatened at gun point, Earl says he’s not afraid because he’s been in combat. But that’s all he can do – not be afraid.
He’s broke, living out of his rusty pickup truck, rejected by his daughter (Alison Eastwood, MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL) and her mother (Dianne Wiest, FOOTLOOSE) after disappointing them way too many times over way too many years. He’s humiliated to not have the money he promised for the wedding of his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga, THE BLING RING), the only family member that still wants to talk to him. So he calls a number that a guy gives him and becomes a driver.
At first it seems like he doesn’t really get what the job is. Then it seems like he makes it a point to not know. There’s both tension and humor in this fragile old man pulling into a garage with a bunch of scary tattoo dudes yelling instructions at him. What are you getting yourself into, grandpa? Maybe you should try being a greeter at Walmart or something?
If it gives you an idea of the kind of gentlemen Earl is working with, I was happy to see Noel G. (sometimes credited as Noel Gugliemi) pop up. You may know him as Hector from THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, or as an L.A. gangbanger in a million other movies (TRAINING DAY [bath tub scene], HARSH TIMES, CRANK, SNOOP DOGG’S HOOD OF HORROR, STREET KINGS, an episode of The Walking Dead called “Vatos,” etc.) He has an effective guy-you-better-hope-is-on-your-side presence. I’ve seen him in DTV movies (RECOIL, FORCE OF EXECUTION) so I was most excited for him when I spotted him in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. But here too I thought, “Hey, it’s Noel G. Of course Noel G is in this.” And I decided it was about time I honor him with an icon.
Oh, and Robert LaSardo (HARD TO KILL, OUT FOR JUSTICE, DROP ZONE, ONE TOUGH BASTARD, HALF PAST DEAD 2, DEATH RACE, PUNCTURE WOUNDS) is in it too. That can be a good sign. We’ll see if he gets an icon some day.
The job goes surprisingly well. Pretty easy. He’s a guy that likes to take long drives. Put on his sunglasses, listen to some country music or Dean Martin or something, maybe sing along. A safe driver, doesn’t tend to get pulled over, that’s why they hired him. He buys a real nice truck. Starts using his money to help people out. We also find out sort of after the fact that maybe he was hiring hookers during his trips. Livin it up.
You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. There’s gotta be a catch. These guys give him phones, keep telling him very seriously that he has to answer it any time it rings, day or night. The first time he’s never even used a cell phone before. It seems like he’s gonna get himself in trouble with these guys, but maybe he should be more worried about the feds. There’s also a whole separate storyline about DEA Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper, MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, AMERICAN SNIPER), newly assigned to the Chicago office, and looking to impress his boss (Laurence Fishburne, DEATH WISH II, MYSTIC RIVER) with a big bust.
Bates and his partner (Michael Peña, BOOGIE BOY) stake out a drug dealer hangout, pick a guy they think is a pussy (Eugene Cordero, THE KINGS OF SUMMER) to apply pressure to and try to get him to rat out the people he’s working with. And this begins a trail that we know is eventually gonna have to intersect with Earl.
Also, is Earl getting too high up in the cartel for his own good? The boss, Laton (Andy Garcia, DANGEROUS MINDS [scenes deleted]), has heard great things about him, and sends his right hand man Julio (Ignacio Serricchio, QUARANTINE 2: TERMINAL) to be his handler. Julio seems jealous, thinks Earl is reckless (he stops for food too much) and kind of becomes the uptight regional manager who lays the law down and ruins all the fun.
It’s not a full-on comedy, but it is pretty funny how most of the people in the cartel seem to think it’s a cute novelty to have this white nonogenarian working for them. He threatens nobody and he’s not scared of much so he ends up in Mexico hanging out at the villa. He’s too old to worry too much about getting killed, so he just acts like he’s at a resort. I like how he becomes buddies with these guys and even starts giving sincere advice to Julio to try to get him to enjoy life more.
THE MULE is more what I want to see out of Clint than A STAR IS BORN or FIRST MAN, two movies he developed for a while but left. And it’s definitely more my speed than his last several, especially the True Stories of Brief, Simple Heroism duology of SULLY and THE 15:17 TO PARIS. The latter I never finished writing my review of, but I thought having it star the actual guys who stopped a terrorist attack on a train was both its only reason to exist and its biggest weakness. I remember my favorite parts were when it was just a plotless travelogue. This one is much more eventful and polished.
But I also have a few reservations. I’ll list four.
1. There’s this moronic game show host guy who is currently in the White House, soon to transfer to America’s Dumbest Criminals, and his trademark is to ruin absolutely everything that could possibly bring any kind of joy into our lives. Sure enough his disgraceful fear-mongering about the U.S.-Mexico border dampens my enjoyment of crime or action movies on related topics. There really are cartels and they really are bad guys but in the context of that asshole’s brainwashing Clint’s generation these things stop feeling like just a story and pick up at least a whiff of propaganda. So it feels gross when, for example, they cut to Laton living his DESPERADO-villain mansion-swarming-with-bikini-girls lifestyle and the screen simply says “MEXICO.”
(Note: Laton is kind of depicted as a nice guy, which is weird because the real Earl worked for El Chapo! Maybe that’s why they have the meaner character played by Clifton Collins, Jr. [FORTRESS]).
2. Though I’m traditionally much easier on Clint’s directorial works than alot of people, I did cringe at some of the heavy-handed cramming-of-themes-into-dialogue he was willing to sign off on here. The worst offense is when Earl explains to his ex-wife what he likes about growing flowers and is too stupid to realize that he’s exactly describing the kind of love and attention that he never gave his family. And then she has to point it out as if we’re too stupid to realize it too. Trust us Clint. We see the themes.
It’s also comical when, in the prologue at a flower convention, Earl sees a mob of buyers crowded around a guy talking up buying flowers online. There’s first a closeup of Earl looking horrified, then he says “Internet! Who needs it?” Cut to 12 years later and he’s packing his belongings into his rusty pickup, telling laborers “it’s that internet.”
(To be fair, the New York Times article that inspired the movie does bring up the theory that “it was the Internet that turned Earl Sharp from a day-lily farmer into a cocaine courier” when his annual color catalog became obsolete.)
3. The “Ain’t That a Kick In the Head” scene is great and then they start playing the song again a couple minutes later. Weirdly lazy.
4. And furthermore, there should be a talking mule character who narrates the film.
Clint doesn’t do much to mitigate 3 or 4, but he does for the first two. Once again things turn out to be more layered and ambiguous than you assume at first. Not even the cartel thugs are judged. There’s a common crime movie trajectory where at first the gang is nice to the protagonist, but he really shouldn’t trust them because eventually they’ll turn on him. Here it’s kind of the reverse. They’re mean and intimidating and he makes a point of not being friendly or saying thank you or anything. He just wants to take the money and go and never do it again. But after he comes back a couple more times he starts to have a rapport with them and they clearly have a soft spot for the old man they call “Tata,” or grandpa. Joking with him, helping show him how to use his phone, standing up for him.
You know those Bad Hombres Trump warned you about? They’re pretty cool if you get to know them. Even the scary “Superstar” Billy Graham looking motherfucker (Lobo Sebastian, GHOSTS OF MARS) who hunts Earl down when (SPOILER) he disappears with their drugs is sympathetic when he finds out he was with his dying wife. The movie never acts like Earl is any better than them.
His handlers watch, livid, when he pulls over to help a family with a flat tire. The scene is partly a chance for Clint to grumble about know-nothing youngsters and their computer phones, because the husband has never changed a tire before and is trying to Google it. But since the family is black it also seems like a “you see, he’s not racist, he’s color blind” moment… until he innocently remarks “it’s great to help Negroes.” Walt Kowalski makes racist remarks that in his mind are good-natured ribbing, but he’s still macho enough to be the aggressor in most of those conversations. Earl takes it to a kind of pathetic place where he says the thing and laughs and it’s kinda more sad than anything, and you watch everyone consider it and decide they can let it go. (This family lets him know not to use that word, which he seems to only half comprehend.) When he has a simultaneously friendly and offensive encounter with some Dikes On Bikes they so clearly could beat the shit out of him that he can’t come across as a bully. They seem to give him the benefit of the doubt. In GRAN TORINO it might’ve been “ha ha, they don’t know how to handle him!” but this is “this guy really doesn’t know how to handle the modern world.”
This ties back to the DIRTY HARRY movies. In THE ENFORCER (1976), Harry throws a bunch of chauvinistic shit at his new partner (Tyne Daly) but ultimately can’t deny that she’s a great cop. That’s his usual pattern of prejudice. Of course Harry, being a white man, never had to be degraded at work before proving himself, so fuck that. But in his backwards way, even Harry Callahan learned he was wrong, whether or not the audience picked up on it. And now he’s expressing that through a goofy old man. You kids don’t mind me, I’ll help with your car or motorcycle if you want, but I won’t be in your way for long.
Earl keeps thinking he’s in a movie about the wit and wisdom of Earl, then finding out otherwise. There’s a warm moment when he’s sharing life lessons with Julio, encouraging him to have more fun, but Julio hits him back with a trenchant observation he doesn’t see coming. He can’t deny his failure with his family. And that’s where the movie seems truly confessional. I don’t know much about Clint’s family life, but I bet there’s some autobiography in the story of a guy neglecting his family for his career, where he travels all the time and is treated as a bigshot, and being stubborn about it, saying he did it to provide for them, but late in life regretting it and trying to make amends. I don’t know if having his real daughter play his estranged daughter supports that theory or not.
But that’s what the movie is really about, and also the part that’s not from the article. The movie is pretty loose with the true story, but not in a painfully full of shit way. One non-essential detail from the article that I wish was in the movie: it describes the Detroit (not Chicago) D.E.A. office having “a particularly great SCARFACE poster” hanging in it, because “Every house we hit has a SCARFACE poster” according to Jeff Moore, the inspiration for Cooper’s character.
Reading the true story made me realize how vague the movie is about the operation. He picks up the stuff, he drives, he drops off the stuff. It probly says from where to where, but I wasn’t totally clear. In reality he was based in Detroit and making long drives all over the country.
Clint didn’t originate the project – the rights owners originally developed it for Ruben Fleischer (ZOMBIELAND) to direct (he gets a producer credit). Screenwriter Nick Schenk is the guy who wrote GRAN TORINO, but he was hired before Clint. [SPOILERS] As in GRAN TORINO, Clint’s character kind of martyrs himself, making a personal choice he believes the cartel will kill him for. When he survives he’s so against bullshit that he interrupts his lawyer’s defense to plead guilty and get it over with.
The real guy pleaded guilty too, but his lawyers portrayed him as someone with dementia who had been taken advantage of, and he tried to to convince them to let him grow Hawaiian papayas for them instead of go to prison. The court did not accept that offer.
For a few years now I’ve gone to new Eastwood movies with trepidation, because time is a bitch and I’m pretty sure he can’t keep making these forever. For the first time in a while he doesn’t have his next one already announced. I hope this isn’t his last movie, but it would be a good one to end on. THE MULE smuggles its way into our hearts.
That was a joke. But I liked the movie.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.