'The Mule' HBO Max Review: Stream It or Skip It?

Last Updated on 2022-06-03 Finn

HBO Max Review of 'The Mule": Watch It Now or Not! Eastwood stars and directs this story about a drug mule who is 90 years old.

The Mule - now on HBO Max - is part of Clint Eastwood's Aging Ol' Coot trilogy (AKA the Get Off My Lawn trilogy or the Muttering Racial Epithets trilogy), which also includes 2021's Cry Macho and 2008's Gran Torino. The latter film was supposed to be Eastwood's last acting role, but one assumes he realized there was some healthy topical fodder for an octo-going-on-nonagenarian to explore - case in point, Leo Sharp, a 90-year-old horticulturist-turned-drug-mule whose real-life escapades were detailed in The New York Times, and are now immortalized by Old Hollywood royalty. This BOATS is directed by Eastwood and features the star role. This bio-dramedy, which, contrary to many 21st century films, did not win an Oscar in 2019, is still better than what we might expect of Eastwood at this stage.


The Git: Earl Stone, Eastwood is the life and soul of any party as long as his family aren't around. His A+ daylilies won him prizes and he charmed everyone he met, except Mary Wiest (Dianne Wiest), his ex-wife, and his daughter Iris Eastwood (Alison Eastwood). He traveled the country for decades, winning many awards, but he never got to see his family again. He missed graduations, baptisms and birthdays. Now it is PEORIA (IL), 2005, where he blows the budget for Iris’ wedding. Then it's twelve years later, 2017, and it's like we are able to do basic math thanks to subtitles. Earl used to get a lot of people asking for his flowers. But the internet has destroyed Earl's business. Now, there is a FORECLOSURE sign at his home. He loads his few belongings in the back of his nineteen-seventy-whatever pickup truck that's more rust than trust, and heads to his granddaughter Ginny's (Taissa Farmiga) pre-wedding brunch, because she's the only family member who hasn't disowned Grandpa Earl. Grandma Mary isn't afraid to rip him apart in front of all.

People get desperate when there is no way to get below a certain level. Earl had promised that he would pay Ginny's wedding costs, but now he is broke. A Mexican man is one of the brunch guests, and he has connections to the cartel. He hooks up Earl with some tattooed toughs who accessorize with heavy artillery, and the old feller lands a gig running don't-look-in-the-bags-type bags (because they're full of drugs) cross-country. First Run reads the subtitles. It goes smoothly, but we are more worried about the truck falling apart than any run-ins with bad guys or cops. Earl finds a large amount of cash in the glove box. This is apparently sufficient to pay for Ginny's big day. He also arranged the flowers, and paid the open-bar tab. A shiny, new supercab Lincoln pickup is also purchased by Earl. This is followed up with a visit to the bank in order to save the farm from foreclosure. As long as you do not consider the moral consequences of these things, everything is looking good.

Earl is such a funny chap that he develops an easy rapport with gun toughs. They teach him how to use the GPS and send texts. It's easy for him to cruise down the highway, picking up several hotties and singing along with Sinatra or Willie. (Uh huh, sure.) Even he warms Julio (Igancio Serricchio), a middle-management guy assigned to him for his runs. There's a MEANWHILE hanging in the air, waiting for it to land. So: MEANWHILE, DEA agent Bates (Bradley Cooper), and Trevino(Michael Pena), face pressure from their boss (Laurence Fishburne), which faces pressure from his boss, to bust some bad guys. The cartel man is turned to them as an informant and they are given details on cross-country drug run. We're already feeling paranoid by the time we see the subtitles reading NINTH RUN. But Earl is behind the wheel, singin' dang it, oh dear me, and holding an ice cream sandwich. This endeavor will go sideways.

Photo: Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Collection

Which Movies will it Remind you Of?: The Mule and Cry Macho are variations on a theme - aging man on road trips getting into trouble - although the former proffers a humbling arc for the character, and the latter, a rejuvenating one.

Worth Watching: Earl, the sole character that has any meat on his bones, is Earl. Eastwood's thoughtful performance quietly examines the weaknesses of an individual who's been driven by selfishness and ego for so long. Since at least 1992, Eastwood has used this theme as a constant in his work, Unforgiven.

The Memorable Dialogue: As Earl, Julio and their partner eat together at a BBQ restaurant on the roadside, one wonders if Eastwood is trying to show the authenticity of older-coot characters, or winkly provoke his critics to get mad at him.

Julio: Everybody keeps staring at Julio.

Earl: It's because two beansers are in one bowl of crackers.

Skin and Sex: Women at a Bangin' Cartl Party; long-lasting shots of the women's thighs at said party.

Our View: This is an entertaining, hilarious, maddening and highly watchable Eastwood production. It's quite good. It's not surprising considering his long-standing ability to tell stories clearly and concisely, even though most of his work is forgettable after Gran Torino. Throughout his directorial career, he's hit a lot of subjects square on the nose, and sometimes it's art (riveting classics Unforgiven and Letters from Iwo Jima), sometimes it's not (yawners Invictus and J. Edgar) and sometimes it's sloppy provocation (American Sniper, Richard Jewell). The Mule has a bit of everything.

This story is very simple. An aging man learns valuable lessons about family and about drug transporting for dangerous criminal syndicates. But it's not straightforward. It'd be too easy to criticize Eastwood for playing an old-man-yells-at-cloud character who's also endlessly clever and charismatic - he contains multitudes, you see. Eastwood has never indulged in self-applaudiment. In Gran Torino as well as Unforgiven he portrays tragic characters caught between redemption and demons. Earl the Mule is very similar to the Eastwood archetype.

It won't surprise you to find that the Mule also has a reputation for stubbornness. (Like I said, right on the nose as always). When Earl uses the term 'negro', or curses the existence of the Internet, a continuation of Eastwood, is he straddling the line of provocation and cluelessness? We don't know. Maybe. Perhaps that's why he gravitated to these characters. This film is true to his male-centric perspective. The screenplay by Nick Schenk and Gran Torino writer Nick Schenk renders female characters plot devices.

Although such fodder is sometimes troubling, Eastwood doesn't indulge his protagonist's view. Earl is clearly heading toward a dramatic reckoning. Even if we aren't invested fully in Earl's well-being we can still be fascinated by his character and his ability to change. Schenk and Eastwood reach a disappointingly soft and sappy conclusion. They are designed for maximum mawkishness. The sentiment rings true, despite the fact that it is void of fat. Earl's tale is worth the effort.

Our call: This prickly neo Eastwood project is funny, complex, and admirably stripped down. If Eastwood does not like you, then it is possible to move on and probably have already done so.

John Serba, a writer freelancer and film critic is located in Grand Rapids (Michigan). Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.

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