Film Review: The Mule (dir by Clint Eastwood)

In The Mule, Clint Eastwood plays Earl Stone.

In some ways, Earl is typical of the characters that Eastwood has played during the latter part of his career.  He’s grouchy.  He’s alienated almost everyone who was previously close to him.  He drives an old pickup truck and he has no idea how to text and he seems to literally snarls whenever he sees anyone under the age of 60.  He served in the Korean War and he’s not scared of guns.

In other ways, Earl is not a typical Eastwood character at all.  First off, he’s on the verge of financial ruin.  Earl may not be the first Eastwood character to not know how to responsibly handle money but he is perhaps the first one to be on the verge of homelessness as a result.  (He’s perhaps the first of Eastwood’s modern character to face real-world consequences for his flaws.)  Secondly, Earl often seems to be lost in the 21st century world.  In Gran Torino and Trouble With The Curve, Eastwood played grumpy old men who could still hold their own when it came to dealing with younger people.  But, in The Mule, Earl seems to be defeated by life.  The only thing that he really has going for him is his reputation as a horticulturist and, as the film makes clear, that’s not a skill that’s going to bring in much money.

That all changes when Earl has a chance meeting with Rico (Victor Rasuk), a friend of his granddaughter’s.  Knowing that Earl is desperate for money, Rico tells him that he could make a quick payday by transporting a package for some friends.  After giving it some thought, Earl agrees.  When Earl meets Rico’s friends, everyone is shocked at how old he is.  They’re even more shocked when Earl says that he doesn’t know how to text.  Earl is given a phone and told to answer it whenever it rings but to never use it to call anyone.  A package is put in the back of Earl’s pickup truck.  It’s suggested that Earl not look in the package.

Does Earl know that he’s transporting drugs?  At first, it’s hard to say.  While it seems obvious to us, Earl is from a different time.  Still, once Earl does eventually learn that he’s being used as a drug mule, it doesn’t seem to bother him.  If nothing else, Earl actually seems to get a kick out of being a real-life outlaw.  He continues to make his runs and he continues to make money and, perhaps most importantly, he now has a purpose in life.  In a strange way, the drug runners even become his new family.  (They call him Tata, which is Spanish for grandfather.)  Of course, they’re a family that makes it cleat that they’ll kill Earl if he’s ever late delivering the package but that doesn’t seem to matter to Earl.

Meanwhile, the DEA (represented by Laurence Fishburne, Bradley Cooper, and — somewhat inevitably — Michael Pena) are hearing reports about a new drug mule who has been nicknamed Tata.  What they don’t suspect, of course, is that Tata is a 90 year-old man who has no criminal record and who is always very careful to obey all the traffic laws.  Even when Earl is pulled over by the police, he’s such a nice old man that they let him go without bothering to really search his vehicle.  It seems like Earl’s got a perfect thing going but, unfortunately, things are never as good as they seem and eventually, the reality of Earl’s situation intrudes on his fantasy….

It’s been said that The Mule is going to be Eastwood’s final film as an actor and he gives an excellent performance as Earl.  The Mule, which feels, in many ways, like a good-natured companion piece to Gran Torino, features Eastwood at both his most vulnerable and, probably not coincidentally, his most likable and sympathetic.  In this film, Eastwood makes clear that he’s no longer the righteous Dirty Harry or the mythological Man With No Name.  Now, he’s just a man nearing the end of his life and trying to come to terms with the mistakes and the decisions of the past.  Eastwood plays Earl like a man who knows that his time is limited.  Smuggling drugs gives him a chance to feel like he’s alive again but, throughout it all, there’s still a deep sadness.  Earl can use his money to pay his bills and to fix up the local VFW hall but he still can’t buy his family’s forgiveness.  Watching the film, it’s impossible not to feel for Earl.  You’re happy that he found at least a little satisfaction with his criminal career, even though you immediately suspect that things probably aren’t going to turn out well for him.

Admittedly, there is one cringe-worthy scene in which it’s suggested that the 90 year-old Earl has had a threesome with two twenty year-olds (and one gets the feeling that the scene would not have been included if not for the fact that the film’s star was also the director).  For the most part, though, this is a thoughtful film that features a poignant performance from Eastwood and which is directed in a restrained, but empathetic manner.  If this is Eastwood’s swan song as an actor, it’s a good note to go out on.

A Movie A Day #355: F.I.S.T. (1978, directed by Norman Jewison)

Sylvester Stallone is Jimmy Hoffa!

Actually, Stallone plays Johnny Kovak, a laborer who becomes a union organizer in 1939.  Working with him is his best friend, Abe Belkin (David Huffman).  In the fight for the working man, Abe refuses to compromise to either the bosses or the gangsters who want a piece of union.  Johnny is more pragmatic and willing to make deals with ruthless mobsters like Vince Doyle (Kevin Conway) and Babe Milano (Tony Lo Bianco).  Over thirty years, both Johnny and Abe marry and start families.  Both become powerful in the union.  When Johnny discovers that union official Max Graham (Peter Boyle) is embezzling funds, Johnny challenges him for the presidency.  When a powerful U.S. senator (Rod Steiger) launches an investigation into F.I.S.T. corruption, both Johnny and Abe end up marked for death.

Obviously based on the life and mysterious disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, F.I.S.T. was one of two films that Stallone made immediately after the surprise success of Rocky.  (The other was Paradise Alley.)  F.I.S.T. features Stallone in one of his most serious roles and the results are mixed.  In the film’s quieter scenes, especially during the first half, Stallone is surprisingly convincing as the idealistic and morally conflicted Kovak.  Stallone is less convincing when Kovak has to give speeches.  If F.I.S.T. were made today, Stallone could probably pull off the scenes of the aged, compromised Johnny but in 1978, he was not yet strong enough as an actor.  Far better is the rest of the cast, especially Conway, Lo Bianco, and Boyle.  If you do see F.I.S.T., keep an eye on the actor playing Johnny’s son.  Though he was credited as Cole Dammett, he grew up to be Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The box office failures of both F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley led Stallone back to his most famous role with Rocky II.  And the rest is history.


A Movie A Day #257: Gleaming the Cube (1989, directed by Graeme Clifford)

Brian Kelly (Christian Slater) is a California skater with a rebellious attitude and an adopted Vietnamese brother named Vinh (Art Chudabala).  When the movie starts, all Brian cares about is not selling out and finding empty pools to skate.  He even hires an airplane to fly him and his friends over Orange County so they can get a bird’s-eye view of the layout.  Vinh is more worried about his job with the Vietnamese Anti-Community Relief Fund.  The fund has been set up to send medical supplies to Vietnam but, when Vinh comes across a discrepancy in the shipping records, he realizes that something else is going on.  When Vinh turns up dead in a hotel room, everyone else may believe that it is suicide but Brian knows that his brother was murdered.  With the help of his fellow skaters and a sympathetic cop (Steven Bauer), Brian sets out to bring his brother’s killers to justice.

I was surprised when I watched Gleaming the Cube because it turned out to be much better than I was expecting.  The movie is justifiably best known for its skating sequences, which were shot by Stacy Peralta and which featured pro-skaters Mike McGill, Rodney Mullen, and Gator Rogowski doubling for Slater in some of the film’s more spectacular stunts.  (Tony Hawk plays one of Slater’s friends.)  Slater, himself, learned how to skate for the movie and looks far more comfortable and natural on his board than Josh Brolin did in Thrashin’.  Beyond the spectacular skating, Gleaming the Cube is energetically directed and surprisingly well-acted.  A pre-stardom Christian Slater gives one of his best and most natural performances as Brian, playing the role without any of the tics or affectations that later came to define his career.  Of its type, Gleaming the Cube is a classic.

Film Review: Trancers (1984, dir. Charles Band)


Back in the 1990’s there was a show on TNT that would play cult films. I don’t remember the name of it, but it was like what TCM Underground is today. I’m pretty sure that’s where I first saw The Warriors (1979), and it introduced me to Trancers. I fell in love with it. I loved the music so much that even though there was no chance I could find it, I had my parents take me to all sorts of places trying to find the soundtrack. That never panned out. Although, the music is still so burned in my mind that when I watched the horrible Savage Island (1985) this year, I recognized the music. And sure enough, Mark Ryder and Phil Davies composed the music for that movie too. They ripped themselves off. But enough of my personal backstory.


In typical film noir fashion, we are introduced to Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) and the setup of the film in voiceover narration as he enters a diner at night. Deth is a cop in the future who just finished “singeing” Martin Whistler (Michael Stefani). Whistler uses psychic powers to enslave people and turn them into what are known as Trancers. Hence the title. There are two people in the diner. A man sitting at the counter and an old lady behind it. After ordering some coffee, he checks the guy using a special bracelet to see if he’s a Trancer. Nope, but watch out cause here comes the old lady.


After taking a knife to the leg, Deth defeats her and her body disappears in a burning red light. That’s how all the Trancers die. Then Deth’s superior McNulty (Art LaFleur) shows up. He tries to give Deth some lip about Trancer hunting being out of bounds for him. Deth does what Bogart would have done. He gets in his car, tosses his badge out the window, and drives off. McNulty tells us that Deth was a good cop till his wife was killed by a Trancer.


Cut to a shot of what was Los Angeles, but now called Lost Angeles because it’s underwater. Deth likes going diving out there. McNulty and some other cops show up to tell him that the council needs him. Deth says “fuck them”, but there’s one more bit of information. Whistler is still alive. That gets his attention and he goes to meet with the council.


The council was once made up of three people, but one of them and his children have disappeared. Here’s the deal. In the future, they have the ability to send you back in time, but you do it by possessing the body of one of your ancestors while your own body remains in the present. Whistler has “gone down the line” and killed off one of the ancestors of a council member. The remaining two council members ask Deth to go back in time to protect their ancestors and bring Whistler back to the present to stand trial. They have his body and are holding it for trial. Well, that is until they show Deth the body.



Interesting side note. The two council members are played by Anne Seymour and Richard Herd. Anne Seymour goes all the way back to All The King’s Men (1949). Richard Herd is famous for several things, but probably best known for being some sort of long lost brother to Karl Malden. They really look similar.


Deth is given a picture of Herd’s ancestor, a baseball card of Seymour’s ancestor, and two vials to be used to bring Deth and Whistler back to the future. Then Deth is injected and finds himself in the body of his ancestor Phillip Deth. Oh, they also sent him back with a special watch that gives him a “long second”. That’s what the film says stretches one second to ten, but in movie terms, it’s much much longer than ten seconds. What follows isn’t much plot wise. This movie is just a little over an hour long. But it’s the delivery that makes it fun. The funny lines. The references. The self aware B-Movie filmmaking. And of course, the boom mic popping in from the top of the screen here and there. So what’s first?


Deth kills Santa Claus. When Deth first arrived he was in an apartment with Lena (Helen Hunt). She works at the mall with Santa. When Santa gets that look on his face, then it means only one thing in this movie: he’s a Trancer. After singeing him, he explains to Lena who he is and why he’s there. This is when we find out that trancing only works on “squids”. Earlier we also learned that dry hair is for squids. That’s why Deth put some stuff in his hair to slick it back. We also get one of my favorite lines ever.



Now it’s on to the tanning salon where Herd’s ancestor works. This is where the movie references The Lady In The Lake (1947).



This is also one of a couple of reference the film makes to itself. In the future, it’s July. In the present of the film, it’s Christmas, but it looks like they shot it in July. Well, anyways, too bad for Herd because his ancestor is already a Trancer. He tries to kill Deth by putting him in a tanning booth to burn him to death. Luckily, Lena comes to his rescue, but Whistler is waiting in the parking lot. You see while Deth’s ancestor is just some guy, Whistler’s ancestor is a cop and apparently his men are now Trancers.


Thank goodness for that long second. But enough of what little action there is in this movie because it’s time for a long sequence of jokes. I can’t post them all, but this is probably my favorite.




Now Deth is taken by Lena to a punk rock concert where the band is playing the worst version of Jingle Bells I’ve ever heard. But Deth does get to deck some guy who tries to harass Lena. And then three guys show up to fight Deth unsuccessfully.


The guy in the middle puts Kid N’ Play to shame. After doing some hilarious dancing to the bad music, Deth almost gets laid. Well, I should be more specific. Jack Deth almost gets laid. Phillip Deth does get laid. McNulty shows up in the body of a little girl who happens to be his ancestor and brings Deth back to the present because obviously Herd is gone from the future. Deth convinces Seymour’s character that he can save her so she sends him back just in time to miss the sex.


When Deth can’t find an episode of Peter Gunn on TV, he sees Whistler on the news saying he is going to institute some sort of program to “keep track of the homeless and protect the innocent.” Deth knows this means the ancestor he’s looking for is on “skid row”. This guy is named Hap Ashby (Biff Manard) and he used to be a pitcher. Now he’s a drunk. After consulting the three wise men, I mean the three homeless guys who call themselves the three kings, they then know where to look for Ashby.

The remainder of the film is quite short. They find Ashby. There’s a motorcycle chase. They harass Ashby about taking a shower and cleaning up. Then they set a trap for Whistler so we can have our climax.


Whistler tries to throw her over the side of the building. Deth uses the long second and catches her after getting to the ground before she does. I love that during the slow motion sequence of the long second, the movie cuts not once, but twice to Ashby drinking.


I also love that Ashby puts his pitching to good use to knock Whistler off the roof. By that I mean Whistler is hit by something, climbs out onto the ledge to dangle, then is hit again so he can fall. Seriously, you can basically see him climb out there on his own. It’s pretty funny.

With one of his vials to send people back to the future broken, he uses the remaining one to send Whistler back to nothingness and Deth remains in the past. He decides to stay with Lena since them being together is how he came into existence in the first place. The End.


Well, not really because we get one final shot of McNulty as a little girl and there happens to be six more films in the Trancers franchise. It’s fair to say that I’m not very familiar with them so they’re going to be new to me too.