Two nonagenarians steal the show in Mary Poppins Returns, but The Mule is a horse of a different color, if you’ll pardon the pun. This is a star vehicle for an 88-year-old actor-director who still commands the screen, Clint Eastwood. It’s a pleasure to watch him play a character his own age, a grumpy old man with a gift of gab and a well-hidden heart of gold.
Logic must be placed aside for the sake of drama. The movie plays like a fable but the fundamental story is true, based on a New York Times article about a 90-year-old man who successfully transported drugs for a Mexican cartel. In this telling Eastwood is a once-successful horticulturalist who has lost his property and with it, his identity and sense of purpose. He has always gotten by on his personality and experience at glad-handing. The only people who haven’t been on the receiving end of his charm is his family, whom he’s let down so many times they’ve lost count.
By sheer chance a Mexican man takes note of him at a party and recruits him because he’s a perfect candidate to be a mule: an unassuming white man who drives carefully. Eastwood’s character shows no interest in the drugs he ferries. He uses the cash he earns to help his neighbors and even his family. There is nary a discussion of morality. Meanwhile, DEA hotshot Bradley Cooper and his partner Michael Peña expend a great deal of time and energy trying to track down this elusive, almost invisible outlaw.
Eastwood is completely believable in a role tailored for him by Nick Schenk, the screenwriter who also penned Gran Torino a decade ago. We forgive his insensitive Archie Bunker-like remarks about different ethnic groups because there doesn’t seem to be any malice behind them. We can also believe his sexual encounters because—well, because he’s Clint Eastwood.
A compatible supporting cast includes Cooper, Peña, Dianne Wiest, Andy Garcia, Laurence Fishburne, Tessa Farmiga, Clifton Collins, Jr., and as Clint’s daughter, his real-life daughter Alison. They all come through for a director they know and respect, like his long-time editor Joel Cox. But The Mule exists because of the amazingly durable star-power of Clint Eastwood, who still has what it takes on both sides of the camera.