Review – Eastwood’s No Jackass (“The Mule”)

No, this isn’t a movie about a talking jackass named Francis (obscure movie reference– Google it), it’s a fact-based story about a 90-year-old WWII veteran who ran drugs for a Mexican cartel and was eventually caught. Directed and starring legendary Clint Eastwood (he hasn’t acted since 2012), this film features NO superheros! Sorry.

The internet sucks. Just ask Earl Stone (Eastwood), an elderly horticulturist whose specialty (and only source of income) is raising superb daylily flowers, but after on-line buying is made possible, he’s forced into bankruptcy. Ever the curmudgeon, his acerbic disposition, unfiltered mouth, and never-there attitude has estranged him from his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest), his daughter, (real-life daughter Alison Eastwood), but not from his grand-daughter (Taissa Farmiga). Desperate for money, he gets offered a simple driving job (after bragging that he’s never gotten a ticket). Sounds simple, huh? Well…

Turns out this ‘simple’ driving job is actually transporting cocaine from Texas to Illinois. Earl, having street savvy and smarts, has the nerve to face these thugs and drive, making some nice $$$ in the process. In fact, the more trips he makes, the more $$$ he scores, which makes his local VFW very happy after a recent fire, and pays for his grand-daughter’s tuition. Even the dangerous Sinaloa Cartel, for which Earl now works for, is happy with him and his spotless (albeit somewhat odd) driving habits. Laton (Andy Garcia), the head of the cartel, is most pleased and even throws Earl a party. Hey, what can go wrong?

Say hello to the head of the DEA (Laurence Fishburne) who gets special agents Bates and Trevino (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena) on the case. Intrepid Bates & Trevino, through investigation and cutting a deal with an undercover snitch, find out about a transporter named “Tata” (Earl’s nickname in the cartel), and the hunt is on. In the meantime, Earl has gotten himself in quite the pickle, as not only the cartel’s deadly upper management has changed hands, but the DEA is slowly closing in.

Based on the true story of Leo Sharp who died in 2016, Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) has written a genuinely simple, but moving screenplay that, no doubt, was embellished for the sake of Hollywood storytelling. Nevertheless, it delivers a solid story and has authen-tic, true dialogue. What really sells the movie, however, is Clint freakin’ Eastwood. Clint playing a wrinkled old cantankerous man who (at times) looks like a ‘walker’ from the Walking Dead, is just perfect casting. His grizzled looks and growling voice is matched only by his unpretentious, effective, and bare-bones direction.

The rest of the cast are great as well, with Cooper and Pena relaxing and just having fun with their roles and Wiest giving a poignant performance. In a seasonal glut of super-hero films, rom-com’s, Christmas and holiday offerings, and other oddball stuff (what the hell is Mortal Engines anyway?), it’s nice to see an adult movie about old people doing stuff that isn’t quite legal… without explosions, buddy team-up’s, or getting help from extra-terrestrials. Go and check this out and then Wikipedia the real story of Leo Sharp. It’s quite the read.

Contraband (2012)

I quote Michael Corleone: “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in”. In the world of movie tropes, the ‘good guy who has to go back to his former bad-guy ways to protect his family’ is used quite a bit. Written by a no-name writer and directed by someone who never had a hit movie, this film was doomed to fail.

Ah, it’s the good life for Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg). He’s got a nice wife (Kate Beckinsale), two young boys, and a respectable security business. In a former life, however, he and his partner Sebastian (Ben Foster) used to smuggle drugs and were damn good at it. BUT! One day Chris’ idiot brother-in-law, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), botches his own smuggling job and now owes a whopping $700K to sleazy mobster Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi).

Wanting to smooth things over, Chris offers to pay Tim back, but after Tim makes threats against Chris’ family, he’s got no choice. Quicker than you can say, “Assemble the team”, Chris gets together a crack squad of some of his old smuggling buds to pull off a job: smuggle in from Panama a cache of $10 million in fake bills. Chris joins a cargo ship, and is joined by Andy, his good friend Danny Raymer (Lukas Haas), and others. He runs into some trouble with the ship captain, Captain Redmond Camp (J.K. Simmons), a real mean SOB.

Meanwhile, as Chris & Co. are busy in Panama getting into all sorts of trouble acquiring the fake bills and getting cheated in the process, Tim harasses Kate and intimidates her children. Things go badly as Chris finds out that not only is he being screwed on the fake bills, but someone back home is playing him. Could it be that his former BFF and partner is selling him out? And what’s so important about that paint-stained drop-cloth that everyone keeps throwing around in the van? Hmmm… 

Anyway, after a loooooooooong wait and what is undoubtedly the most ridiculous and far-fetched of circumstances, Chris manages to get everything right and squared away. I swear, he must’ve have been a member of Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible team at one time! Aaron Guzikowski, who wrote the impressive movie Prisoners, really took his sweet time in expounding every nuance in this film. In fact, it’s TOO much. There is so much uninteresting information thrown in that you wish you could fast-forward to the action. And then there’s the odd character development. Walhberg’s Chris Farraday, who’s supposed to be hating what he’s doing, is enjoying this illegal job way too much.

Part of the fault has to go to director Baltasar Kormakur, who is more at home shooting films in his native Iceland. He’s done a few forgettable films here (2 Guns, Adrift), but he loves to play with the camera and the focus puller. There’s lots of incoherent night shots, jumbled fights you can’t follow, and “artsy” set-up shots. He really takes his time in telling a story and, ultimately, bores us in the process. Don’t expect anything new from Wahlberg either, he’s just being his generic self here.

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