“I thought you were dead.” That’s never a line to be used lightly in a film by and starring the indefatigable Clint Eastwood. The better one to describe the 88-year-old actor and director’s latest movie is the one thrown at him only half-affectionately: “Let’s hear it for gramps.”

Eastwood’s iconic presence transforms the drug-themed drama into something resembling a meditation on aging, surviving and staying relevant. The 116-minute film overreaches ever so often for poignancy and profundity, but it works best when it isn’t trying to. The gentle comedy riffs on Eastwood’s advanced years and back catalogue, and features Eastwood not for the first time as a grizzled and obdurate traditionalist making a place for himself in a world with changed rules and more racial and cultural diversity than was permitted in his time.

Nick Schenk’s screenplay is based on a truth-beats-fiction New York Times report from 2014 about Leo Sharp, an octogenarian award-winning horticulturist who ferried drugs across the United States of America for the dreaded Sinaloa cartel for years before being caught. In the movie, Eastwood’s 90-year-old Earl Stone gets a back story for his actions – his tense relationship with his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter (Alison Eastwood), and the threat of foreclosure. Earl’s clean record and willingness to transport packages across the country in return wonders until Drug Enforcement Administration agents start investigating his movements.

The horticultural angle is criminally under-explored, but it does inspire the metaphor of ephemerality that marks Earl’s existence, apart from producing a moving closing image. “Flowers are unique, they live one day and that is the end of it, and they deserve all the time and effort,” Earl says in an effort to explain his curmudgeonly nature. Earl’s befuddlement over the internet and mobile texting produce laughs, but less easily explained are his naive racism (his vocabulary hasn’t extended beyond “Negros”) and his chick magnet status (“I’ll have a double,” he says meaningfully at a party).

The heavyweight cast includes several actors who stand by respectfully, including Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne and Michael Pena as the DEA agents and Andy Garcia as a Mexican druglord. Eastwood’s typically unfussy direction and crisp storytelling ensure that Earl Stone’s adventure cruises along through 116 minutes, but the movie lacks curiosity about the motivations of its lead character. The Mule sticks to the outdoors rather than crawling inside the mind of its anti-hero, finding meaning for Earl’s sudden career switch in his love for cruising along highways and his family situation. The end result is a largely unremarkable film that just happens to star a remarkable actor and director as a remarkable man.

The Mule (2018).