A gentle kick

Clint Eastwood picks up a flower, squints, thinking, Is this an Oscar?

Clint Eastwood picks up a flower, squints, thinking, Is this an Oscar?

Rated 3.0

Director-star Clint Eastwood’s The Mule is ostensibly based on a New York Times article by Sam Dolnick about one Leo Sharp, who ran drugs from Mexico to Detroit for the Sinaloa Cartel for more than a decade before his luck finally ran out in 2011, when he was 87. But by the time writer Nick Schenk—who wrote Eastwood’s hit Gran Torino 10 years ago—got through with the story, it had morphed into a movie about Eastwood, the man and the screen persona.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The truth is, the real-life Sharp probably isn’t as interesting as all that. He certainly doesn’t have the history with his audience, or with Dolnick’s readership, that Eastwood has with his. And at 88, it’s no wonder if every movie that Eastwood makes has an elegiac, farewell quality to it. (Though you’d never know: Eastwood seems to be going strong, and his mother made it to 97.)

In Schenk’s heavily fictionalized telling, Sharp becomes Earl Stone, and Eastwood plays him with a sort of leathery frailty. Earl gets into drug running first as a way to save his flower business from foreclosure (it languished when he ignored the threat from online sales for too long), and second in an effort to rebuild his relationship with his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and estranged, angry daughter Iris (Eastwood’s real-life daughter Alison) by paying for the wedding of his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Then he learns that his local Veterans of Foreign Wars post needs money to rebuild after a fire, and what started as a one-off becomes a regular gig, with the octogenarian Earl poking along the interstate highway system between El Paso and Chicago, under the radar and not fitting any of the usual profiles for drug mules.

But two DEA agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña) have managed to leverage a snitch in the Sinaloa Cartel, and they’ve gotten wind of a prolific drug runner in a black pickup whom the cartel has code-named El Tata ("The Grandfather"). They little suspect how literal the code name is, preoccupied as they are with pulling over Hispanic drivers who fit the profile. But they’re getting closer.

While the DEA gets closer, Earl’s long-neglected family continues to keep its distance. Mary has been hurt too often for too long, Iris refuses to be in the same room and even Ginny grows weary of making excuses for him. Earl’s fumbling efforts to make up for lost time, contrasted with his smooth amiability among strangers, make him sympathetic in a way that the real Leo Sharp, with his more straightforward venality, can’t be. It leads us to overlook his criminality—or if not overlook, at least shrug off the casual prejudices he dispenses along the way. For instance, he calls his cartel handlers “beaners,” and even when he stops to help an African-American couple with their flat tire, he calls them “negro folks"—in 2010, no less. It’s as if Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name has evolved into a sort of tight-lipped, soft-hearted Archie Bunker. And somehow, there’s something strangely comforting in that.