Clint Eastwood is the Hollywood equivalent of the engine that could: Quite admirably, he just keeps going and going. And at an age where it might be challenging enough just to direct a movie, he still puts himself front-and-center as its star frequently.
“The Mule” (which HBO shows Monday, May 23) is the one of those exercises, and the 2018 drama gives Eastwood a great character: a senior citizen whose personal life is on the ropes, to put it mildly, but he finds surprising redemption and financial success for himself in becoming a drug transporter — or a “mule” — for a Mexican cartel.
Where this becomes much more than a standard crime drama is in the role and how Eastwood plays it. Regrets? This man has had a few … actually, many more than a few, especially where his long-neglected ex-wife and daughter are concerned. The daughter is played by Eastwood’s own offspring Alison, giving their scenes together an authenticity you can’t buy.
Previous Eastwood colleagues Laurence Fishburne and Bradley Cooper resurface as DEA agents who eventually get clued into the old-timer’s activities, and Dianne Wiest has some heartbreaking moments as the ex-wife. However, there’s no doubt that “The Mule” belongs to Eastwood, and what’s especially impressive and gratifying is that he knowingly uses it to let his image show some wear and tear.
Those with degrees in psychiatry might speculate how much the Hollywood veteran wants his alter ego here to mirror the effects of the lengthy career run he’s had himself. For viewers, this might just be the most vulnerable Eastwood has allowed himself to be seen since “The Bridges of Madison County” — and that was almost a 25-year gap.
Even in recent films that he’s only directed and not appeared in, brawn and bravado have been the qualities mostly in the spotlight. With “The Mule,” Eastwood gets a lot more personal on a very basic, human level … and it’s somewhat endearing to see that from the man who has given pop culture such legendarily steely images as those of The Man With No Name and “Dirty” Harry Callahan.
With “The Mule,” Eastwood generates a story and a character that keep you compelled and intrigued to find out how things will end up. That means everything in what principally is a two-hour portrait of a single figure, and one of the latest affirmations that its driving force isn’t done making the day of moviegoers just yet.