The Mule

The man is 88 years old and still working hard to make good films. I skipped the first of his 2018 movies, the poorly reviewed “15:17 to Paris”. I was initially interested in seeing it, but the reviews were so bad that even the idea of the actual heroes playing themselves was not enough to induce me. This film does not any gimmick to it, it simply has the one essential plus that could over power any doubts; Clint is acting in the movie. In addition to directing, which has been his main focus for the last decade, he has come out of semi-retirement as on on-screen presence to deliver a performance to potentially cap off his amazing career.

It’s unlikely that he will receive Awards attention, he will be stereotyped as playing a character that he is, an old man. That character can also be seen as not to distinct from Walt in “Grand Torino”, a man who today’s generation would see as a racist because of the generation he grew up in. He is also likely to be ignored because he has crossed some lines that politically are Hollywood landmines. Regardless of whether he gets some professional accolades, I’m willing to give him some personal ones. For most of his career, he has played steel willed characters with a streak of sardonic humor. He keeps the humor for this part but adds some personal weaknesses and doubts. A lot like his character in “Million Dollar Baby”, Earl, the ninety year old drug mule in this film, struggles to connect with family and sees the most selfish impulses as the easiest ones to choose. His stubbornness is the real reason the title describes him. Earl has always done things his own way, and the fact that it might inconvenience his cartel employers is one lesson he has trouble learning.

The fun and personable aspects of Earl’s character are shown in the early scenes of his horticulturalist success, and later in the film as he parties with the drug lords. Clint manages to make a flinty old man a subject of amusement and charm. At the same time, we see that he recognizes some of his faults. There is an opening scene where he should be reminded of his own daughter’s wedding, and he brushes it off without a second thought. Towards the end of the film, we get to see that he can’t do that anymore. He sincerely wants to be there for his mostly ignored family. The facial expressions on his phone call with his granddaughter are contained looks that are appropriate for the character and the film. When Clint plays against Diane Wiest as his former wife, you can see the frustration she feels, but the aura of sadness and realization and defensiveness that Earl feels is palatable.  There is a slightly manufactured scene where Earl comes across his counterpart, a younger version of himself, someone who is driven to succeed but may be doing so at the expense of his family. As he offers advice, the voice contains the weariness that should tell the younger man that this is a man with the kind of experience to learn from.

Although this is a family drama, the crime elements are barely in second place. We care about this head strong, recklessly casual nonagenarian. He jokes with the guys he is taking the drugs from, and we laugh as he struggles to figure out texting, or makes ethnically insensitive jokes with the wrong guys. You will almost certainly smile when Dean Martin is crooning and the gang is all a part of it, but when the timetable is upset or the actions of a uptight handler threaten Earl, you will feel tension and that is exactly the kind of thing that a director like Eastwood knows. He plays a old man, in over his depth, who is trying to get by on the same charm that works with his VA buddies and his friends, but we know that that is not the audience he is playing to, and disaster is on the horizon.

The cast is thick with talent, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, Lawrence Fishburne and Andy Garcia are all in small but valuable roles. Diane Wiest has only a few scenes but she shows again that she is one of the most talented character actors working. She is twenty years younger than Clint but you will not sense that difference in their performances. The cast that plays the drug cartel drones is chosen for their looks but they also are capable. Eastwood has picked an interesting story, put together an involving drama, and turned in a effective performance and he has done it as he himself is approaching Earl’s age. We should all be so talented and full of ambition.

I saw a headline a couple of weeks ago that declared the movie star dead. That proclamation was based on the disappointing box office opening of this film. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt have had great success in films in the last few years. Lawrence has arguably been the most bankable star, man or woman, since the start of the Hunger Games series, and Pratt starred in the colossus “Jurassic World” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”. Their pairing may have been the reason this film finally got a greenlight after years in development hell. The lower than expected returns are supposedly an indicator that star power can”t save a movie. The truth is, a movie succeeds or fails for many reasons, and while the star may be one of those reasons, there are usually others. The weakness of this films performance should not be unjustly laid at the feet of the two leads.

“Passengers” is sold to us as a love story in space. The trailers make the film look like an adventure with the star crossed lovers battling to save themselves and the ship they are traveling on. I’m going to avoid spoilers as usual, but I will say that there is a twist in this story that is much darker and deeper than the film clips suggest. Maybe this is not a great movie, but it was better than I expected and the production values are top notch so I think I can recommend it to people who like science fiction and a lot of drama thrown in.

The provocative part of the story occurs for reasons that audiences will understand but may be horrified by. There is an interesting “what would you do? question at the heart of the film. The follow up question of how to handle the choice that is made is less complex because the story takes a very traditional turn into action tension and drama. The second act of the film is where all of the real emotion is and when the story veers back to the usual plot points, there is less that is interesting about it. For the vast majority of the movie, the two leads are the sole human characters on the ship. Michael Sheen, who is great, does have a side part to play, but he essentially is a tool for exposition and philosophy to be engorged in out loud. Lawrence and Pratt have to sell the human elements. I thought their chemistry was solid and that they made a somewhat believable couple under the circumstances.

 The failure of this movie to connect with audiences may have more to do with marketing than anything else. The trailers and ads ignore the real conflict of the film entirely and focus on the romance and adventure. There is a hint of a secret plot but that is a red herring, every shot with Lawrence Fishburne and Andy Garcia in it is misleading to the audience. Garcia must have a fantastic agent to get billing and paid for his contribution to the film. I suspect there may have been more of the story that got trimmed, and in the long run that is probably best.

 

 

The appearance of  Fishburne in the film, signals the start of the last section of the movie and a return to standard action adventure activity.  The idea that a solo engineer and a well read but not expert passenger, can handle the issues that crop up is a little hard to swallow, but since the whole idea of the film is hard to swallow to begin with I guess I can live with it. The action beats are not surprising but the special effects work is solid and there is one final twist that does pay off from the earlier section. In essence it helps redeem the film and make it a bit more worthy.  “Passengers” is not an essential film but it is entertaining and it should make for a good date night film for all those future “Netflix and Chill” evenings ahead.