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Clint Eastwood does good turn as elderly drug runner in ‘The Mule’

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J

“The Mule” is the latest in a catalogue of films by celebrated actor, director and octogenarian Clint Eastwood that also stars his daughter, Alison Eastwood, as well as Dianne Wiest, Andy Garcia, Laurence Fishburne, Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena, among others. “The Mule” is inspired by real events where a Indiana-area man in his 80s named Leonard Sharp, who is a World War II veteran and renowned horticulturist, became a drug runner for a famous Mexican drug cartel.

In the film Eastwood’s name is Earl Stone, and he has spent so much of his life working diligently on his award-winning flowers that he has lost touch with his family. He is divorced and facing eviction from his home/nursery.

EARL USES SOME of his illegal earnings to snatch his home and nursery out of foreclosure.

I kind of felt sorry for Earl, because the 88-year-old Eastwood is most times the “bad-ass,” and in “The Mule” he is so vulnerable. He is estranged from his family and can’t live up to a financial commitment for his granddaughter’s upcoming wedding. This is when his drug running begins, after he meets someone at the wedding pre-party who offers a business card—just in case Earl needs help. He is not only out of touch with his family but also with contemporary times. He stops to assist a Black family with a flat tire and calls them Negroes. The drug dealers give him a throw-away cell phone for each run, but he doesn’t even know how to use it.

As the trips from Peoria, Illinois, where the film is set, to other cities increase, Earl is making untold thousands and quickly learns just what kind of collateral he is hauling in the back of a rusty old truck at the onset to a nice shiny black Cadillac in the end. He just nonchalantly goes about picking up loads and dropping them off and waiting for his payment to be placed in the car’s glove compartment. He helps with his granddaughter’s wedding, gets his house out of foreclosure, and helps the local V.F.W. hall, among other good deeds.

He does have some close calls while traveling; one particularly hairy situation arises when a state trooper stops to see if he needs assistance, and the K-9 dog nearly detects the cocaine in the trunk. However, Earl quickly applies a coat of Bengay to clear the scent off his hands.

But he is also intimidated by some of the gang members and has to make a tough decision when he learns that his ex-wife, played by Wiest, is succumbing to cancer.

In the midst of all this, his work is so remarkable that he is summoned to Mexico to party with Garcia, who is head of the cartel. Eventually, his fancy truck becomes part of his downfall, as DEA agents, led by Fishburne, need a big score to please the higher-ups and they find a snitch to help them out. And as with the real Leonard Sharp, Earl gets arrested and faces convictions on a vast number of drug-related charges. By this time, he has much more to lose than just his freedom—he had finally reconciled with his family.

“The Mule” can be viewed as social commentary about how America looks out for its elderly population, the proliferation of drugs everywhere, and just plain old respect and love for a person’s family over their business endeavors.

Eastwood does a good job with this one, although I’m not particularly a fan. As director, he does throw in a scene of anticipated police brutality of a man who is so terribly mortified when he is stopped by the cops, which mimics everyday scenarios in what have become “police states” for many minorities in most cities. I don’t know if this scene and Earl’s cordial relationship with the Latinos who work for him are meant to counter the sentiments of the Republican Party—a perceived affiliation of Eastwood’s. But it is good that these themes are broached.

“The Mule” is playing in theaters everywhere.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.”

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