Last year's The Old Man and the Gun and Clint Eastwood's new film The Mule share three things in common. First, they both star Hollywood octogenarian greats Robert Redford (82) and Eastwood (88). Second, they're both based on real life stories of unlikely elderly criminals and the men who pursued them. Thirdly, they share a pronounced nostalgia for civility; a yearning for a bygone era where nothing, not even law-breaking, should come at the cost of common decency. But where Redford's film maintained a light and tender tone throughout, Eastwood's latest lacks consistency, veering from awkward cynicism to thin familial sentimentality.
As a vehicle for Eastwood's first on-screen role in six years, The Mule seems perfect. Written by Nick Schenk, who previously worked alongside Eastwood on Gran Torino, the film tells the fascinating true tale of Leo Sharp (named Earl Stone here), a 90 year-old WWII veteran and award-winning horticulturalist who became a big-time drug runner for a Mexican cartel after his own business ran into financial trouble. Stone is grizzled, bitter, grumpy and a little bit racist. In short, Eastwood embodies the look and feel of the man immediately.
When Stone agrees to run a package across the country, no questions asked, he reveals himself to be the perfect mule for Andy Garcia's cartel, and as his illicit load increases with each new run, so too does his reward. Accompanied throughout by cartel minders, the setup is perfect for a black comedy. But whilst there are a few terrific moments (a carpool karaoke version of 'Ain't That A Kick In The Head' being the best), too much of the film falls flat, lacking the full lighthearted touch but at the same time failing to follow the darker path it also could have taken.
In supporting roles, Eastwood brings back some of his recent regulars, including Bradley Cooper and Michael Pêna as the DEA agents charged with tracking Stone down and bringing him to justice. As with The Old Man and the Gun, it takes some time to dawn on the authorities that they're pursuing a man in his 80s – which of course was precisely why the Cartel went that direction in the beginning. Eastwood has always been impressive in his embracing of ageing, even tabling Unforgiven for over a decade until he felt he was old enough to do the role justice. Here in The Mule, though, the age card offers so many tantalising possibilities for the story, yet is used far too sparingly and too easily, resorting to mostly tired tropes like technological dyslexia (wait, how do you text again?). Moreover, while Stone is a remorseful man insofar as his troubled family history goes, he shows none for his part in supporting a violent and brutal cartel (at least not until the film's final stages).
The end result is a film that looks great (it's Eastwood in the chair, after all), but feels like a middle child of genre; funny but not a comedy, dark but not a thriller, on the road but not a road movie and moving but not fully a drama.