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THE MULE: Eastwood dandy in an otherwise boring movie

Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” has some notable flaws -- but Eastwood’s acting is not among them.

Fans of the 88-year-old director should consider this a must; despite its weak script, “The Mule” offers one of his finest performances. If you ever wanted to see Dirty Harry with more touchy-feelies, this one’s for you.

Here the famous toughie plays Earl Stone, a World War II vet in desperate need of cash -- so he becomes a courier for a Central American drug cartel. Based on a real-life story, the movie features a strong cast including Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, Dianne Wiest, Taissa Farmiga, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia and Eastwood’s daughter Alison (playing Stone’s daughter, naturally).

Nonetheless, “The Mule” is overlong and clumsily paced. It has very little action and too many drug-runs consisting largely of Stone driving his sleek Lincoln pick-up along broad stretches of mid-western interstate. Granted, it’s worth the admission price to watch Eastwood munch an ice-cream sandwich and cruise no-handed with Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” playing on the radio. Besides that, “The Mule” doesn’t offer much more than the tired morality tale of an aging man who realizes he spent too much time on his job and not enough on family.

Yet Eastwood’s acting makes this work -- with plenty of help from Dianne Wiest as Stone’s ex-wife. Their dialog is often lame and sentimental; but when Eastwood flirts with her, trying to get her to dance with him again, there’s a twinkle in his eye, a softness and a vulnerability, of which we’ve caught only glimpses in his long career. (For notable hints, see “Gran Torino,” “In the Line of Fire” and 1984’s unjustly neglected “Tightrope.”)

Cooper and Pena play DEA agents trying to bust in on the trafficking, and this is another of the film’s weaknesses. Their investigation is both rambling and unclear, and the plot-strand never coalesces till the very end; even then it doesn’t generate much suspense.

Screenwriter Nick Schenk can do better -- as he did with “Gran Torino,” one of Eastwood’s best. But to be honest, Eastwood as director must share some blame for the uneven pace and slipshod storytelling. One wonders if some bits and pieces connecting the plot strands (like the one involving Julio) got left on the cutting-room floor; but then, putting them back in would make an unwieldy film even longer.

I guess it sounds like I didn’t care for “The Mule”; but any Eastwood fan -- of which I am decidedly one -- will be hard-pressed to feel disappointed. We’re lucky to have this late-career look at his softer side -- even if it occurs an otherwise unremarkable film.

“The Mule,”

directed by Clint Eastwood

Run time: 116 min.

* * 1/2 (out of four)

Rated R for language and brief but gratuitous nudity

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