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‘The Mule’: In offbeat crime tale, Clint Eastwood drives into a trafficking jam

Iris (Alison Eastwood) feels neglected by her father, Earl (Clint Eastwood), in "The Mule."

Iris (Alison Eastwood) feels neglected by her father, Earl (Clint Eastwood), in "The Mule." | Warner Bros.

For such an ancient mule, ol’ Earl Stone sure has a lot of kick left in him.

Until very recently, the 90ish Earl was a prolific and award-winning horticulturist, a rock star in the elite and highly competitive field of daylillies.

Earl thinks nothing of climbing into his battered old truck and driving halfway across the country.

He likes a strong drink, enjoys a pulled pork sandwich, loves to tell corny jokes — and he’s such a ladies’ man that, within a few months’ time, he has TWO threesomes, and if you added up the ages of all four of the women involved, it would be only slightly higher than Earl’s age.

Oh, and there’s this: Lately, Earl has become the top courier, aka mule, for a branch of the Mexican drug cartel, regularly delivering packages in excess of 100-plus kilograms of cocaine in the States.

The indefatigable Clint Eastwood, 88, is the director and star of “The Mule,” which is based on the true story of Leo Sharp, a decorated World War II veteran who really was an award-winning horticulturist and really did become a courier for the Sinaloa cartel when he was in his 80s — a “legend,” as a law enforcement official put it in the New York Times Magazine article by Sam Dolnick that serves as the basis for this film.

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“The Mule” doesn’t shy away from scenes reminding us Earl is working for murderous drug dealers, but, like the recent, also fact-based Robert Redford vehicle “The Old Man and the Gun,” it’s about as cozy and comfortable and light as a film about a criminal can be. (They could have called this movie “The Old Man and the Truck.”)

Heck, even some of the gun-toting henchmen with the ominous neck tattoos grow fond of the mule they call “Tata.”

In a brief setup set in 2005, we learn the Peoria-based Earl is always the life of the party when he’s on the road and carousing with friends but was never there for his now ex-wife (Dianne Wiest), his daughter (played by Eastwood’s daughter Alison) or his granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga).

Cut to 2017. Earl’s daylily farm has been put out of business by “the damn Internet.” He’s lost his home, and he’s dead broke, and he’s in desperate need of cash.

That’s when Earl learns of a job where all he has to do is pick up a duffel bag (or two, or three), drive to a designated location hundreds of miles away, disappear for an hour — and return to his truck, with the package gone and an envelope fat with cash in the glove compartment.

It takes Earl a while to realize he’s transporting massive amounts of drugs. (Come on, Earl, did ya think you were working for a black-market competitor to Amazon Prime?) But even after he learns the truth, Earl keeps on mulin’, sometimes doling out his earnings for good causes, sometimes using it to add some serious flash to his game.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, Laurence Fishburne’s DEA supervisor is taking heat from headquarters and is pressuring his top undercover agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena) to deliver a major bust ASAP. With the help of an informant, the agents slowly begin to close in on that mysterious mule.

(Sidebar: The agents tool around in a sleek, jet-black, giant Dodge Ram truck — with a made-at-Kinko’s-lookin’ sign saying “LARRY’S PLUMBING” on the doors. Ooh, deceptive!)

We also take the occasional detour to Mexico to drop in on the cartel kingpin (Andy Garcia), who is living the life of 1975 Hef, complete with spacious compound, a bevy of scantily clad beauties lounging about and parties every night. When he skeet-shoots, he uses a gold-plated shotgun and encourages his henchmen to applaud his marksmanship. This guy is FUN. Evil, but fun.

“The Mule” is not a subtle film. As two women exit Earl’s hotel room after a night of debauchery, we hear Dean Martin singing, “How lucky can one guy be…” from “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” thus giving us an obvious musical punchline PLUS a mule reference. (Later, when Earl is on the road again, “On the Road Again” plays on his car radio.)

Eastwood the director can’t resist giving us two scenes in which Cooper’s DEA agent crosses paths with Earl without realizing Earl is the legendary mule he’s pursuing, and he provides Earl with at least one Moment of Redemption too many. While it’s cool to see Cooper interacting with his director from “American Sniper,” it’s a bit much.

What a remarkable career Eastwood has had as a director, from “Play Misty For Me” in 1971 through “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), “Bird” (1988), “Unforgiven” (1992), “Mystic River” (2003), “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), “Flags of our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) and “Sully” (2016), to name just some of the highlights.

“The Mule” isn’t close to being on par with those films, but it’s an entertaining enough offbeat crime comedy/drama featuring an amazing cast — led by the grizzled, shuffling, mumbling, wisecracking old dog playing the lead.

‘The Mule’

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Nick Schenk. Rated R (for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity). Running time: 116 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.