#13 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
Clint Eastwood was done telling stories about real heroes for a bit, and he turned his attention to a role he could pick up himself. His first self-directed acting role since Gran Torino a decade before, this feels like Eastwood finding a story that tickled him and finding the money for it quickly. Based on the real life adventures of Leo Sharp, a WWII vet who became a drug mule for the Mexican drug cartels, Eastwood and his screenwriter Nick Schenk, created a fictional character (this time a Korean Wat vet) and actually built a story around him. It kind of feels like a reaction to the limitations brought on by trying to keep as strictly to the reality in The 15:17 to Paris, helped by the fact that Sharp had already passed by the time the article on which the screenplay was based had been published, so Eastwood couldn’t cast the real guy.
Earl Stone (Eastwood) runs a successful flower business growing daylilies, and he spends the day of his daughter’s second wedding basking in the presence of his buddies after having won an award for his horticulture work, enraging Iris (Alison Eastwood) as well as his wife Mary (Dianne Wiest). Twelve years later, the Internet has destroyed Earl’s business, and he’s rejected by his family at a breakfast celebrating the upcoming wedding of his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga), despite Ginny’s desire to have him around. Witnessed by a low-level member of the cartel, Earl gets offered the job of transporting goods from El Paso to Chicago. Desperate for money, especially in the face of his family’s rejection of him, he takes them up. Earl plays up his oldness as a defense, but he knows what’s going on when they shove a bag of drugs into the back of his old pickup. His run is successful, and things begin to pick up. He goes on several more runs, making more money to help pay for Ginny’s wedding, her cosmetology education, as well as the rebuilding of his local VFW hall.
Meanwhile, the DEA in Chicago is looking for a way to crack the drug trade in the area, and new import to the area Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) is tasked by his superior, Lewis (Laurence Fishburne), to make a splash in his investigation. This puts him on the tail of a low-level member of the gangs, Luis (Eugene Cordero) who becomes his confidential informant, letting him know about the overall setup of drivers dropping off their cars into parking lots of random hotels, walking away, and coming back to find cash in their gloveboxes with their cargo gone.
Earl keeps on with his work, happy to bask in the adulations of people because of his new-found generosity as well as the easy way he’s making money. It leads to a meeting with the head of the cartel, Laton (Andy Garcia), in Mexico where Eastwood gets to show off how much of a dirty old man he’d become (lots of butt shots of attractive young women in this one). Earl is just happy to have some fun and occasionally pop in on his family’s lives like at Ginny’s graduation. Still, he’s distant from them all, and it is the thematic heart of the film. Earl spent his whole life favoring the road and his job to his family, and even when he’s rolling in cash, he still prefers his job over his family, using his money to help fund them but offering nothing else in return. This gets complimented nicely with Bates, especially when the two meet at a Waffle House. Bates, tracking information from his CI, knows that the mule will be at a particular hotel, but Earl’s age shows itself to be the perfect cover. Bates simply passes over him, favoring more obvious targets, and after an unsuccessful bust, the two end up eating breakfast together. It’s a nice moment, the first self-reflective moment in Earl’s screentime, where he has to impart the advice that he’s been avoiding himself for so long: family is more important than the job.
It’s not a deep message on any level, but it’s a nice and obvious one. It provides enough of a character hook for Earl so that when faced with his final chance to choose between the money and his family, his choice makes sense, has some level of emotional impact, and works dramatically.
The overall point, though, seems to be Clint having fun, and have fun he does. From crooning along with the classics on his radio as he drives to having easy relationships with his cartel handlers, most notably Julio (Ignacio Serricchio), whom he teaches to take a moment and enjoy life like on their stop to the best barbeque pork sandwich in the Midwest, to dancing with attractive young women around a pool, Eastwood obviously decided that this would be a fun way to spend a few weeks filming while getting paid for it. That a serviceable movie came out of it has to be something of a small miracle, and the movie really is fairly good.
It does nothing unexpected. It’s borderline paint by numbers in a unique setup, but it has the basic pieces in place to work dramatically. If this had been his last film, I would equate it to Alfred Hitchcock‘s Family Plot: a minor work that touched on things he cared about and a decent way to go out. Still, Eastwood has two more to go.