Brooke Shaffer

Author, Gamer, and Cat-Collector Extraordinaire

Comparing Stories: The Mule vs. Honest Thief

Adam and I went on a Redbox spree a few weeks ago, and during this spree we ended up watching a couple of movies that were very similar (yes, yes, most of them are pretty copy-catish, but these were remarkably similar).  These were The Mule and Honest Thief.

Spoilers ahead.  You have been warned.

Basic synopses first.

The Mule (Clint Eastwood) is about a 90-year-old combat veteran (Earl) turned gardener who loses his gardening business and his home and has nowhere to turn.  His workaholic lifestyle has isolated him from his family, and the only one who sticks up for him is his teenage (early 20's?) granddaughter.  While disturbing a family get-together, he is approached by a boyfriend of some relative who offers him a job.  This job?  Just drive.  Pick up a package here, deliver it there, don't ask questions, get paid.  Doesn't take a genius to figure out that it's smuggling drugs, but the guy goes along with it.  And a single, off-hand gig quickly turns into something much more sinister and dangerous, and the DEA is scrambling to try and catch "the best mule in the country."

Honest Thief (Liam Neeson) is about a retired Marine (Tom) who became a bank robber after his parents' death (*insert sob story here*).  Eventually he meets a woman and decides he wants to move in and marry her.  But to do that, he needs to clear his conscience.  So he calls the FBI and tries to arrange for a deal.  At first they don't even believe him because his notoriety has prompted others to call and try to take responsibility in order to get famous.  The agents who check into his story, however, are dirty, and try to take the money for themselves and off him and his girlfriend.

Quick note: Both movies are very good.  If you've got a couple bucks and a couple hours, pick them up at Redbox or find them in a bargain bin at Dollar General.

Both stories follow retired veterans who have come to a point in their lives where they need to make a change in order to make things right with their families.  In The Mule, Earl wants to make things right before he dies.  In Honest Thief, Tom wants to make things right so he can be with the woman he loves.

However, it is the execution of these stories that I find fascinating.  When you consider The Mule and that it involves drugs and cartels and trips to Mexico and the DEA and everything else, you would expect it to be a high-octane, ultra-intense, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride.  But it's not.  The enjoyment comes from the subtle maneuvering, the mind games, the tricks and traps.  Earl just wants to get his house back and make things right with his family.  As the audience, you don't want to see him get mixed up in the cartels, but then you're faced with the dilemma of how does he get away cleanly?  You don't dare cross the cartel, but how does he get help?  What avenue sees everyone home safely or arrested and behind bars?  What cards must be played and when?  And when he does ignore their calls (sitting on millions of dollars of cocaine), how does this end well?  How can it?

Earl does an excellent job of staying clean, really, and keeping the feds off his trail.  Aside from being an unlikely candidate, he just does normal things.  He stops at touristy places, eats at nice diners, makes friends with any police officers he does meet, and is overall a very friendly, genial old man.  He also makes a ton of racist jokes that are honestly funny, and he makes fun of everyone for it.  It's really a movie with a main character that you can laugh at and root for and yell at and everything else, and he's just a guy.

There are several instances of violence such as Earl being shown a dead man in order to reinforce the point that mules do as they're told, but there are no car chases, no drawn out stand offs, no shootouts, no bombs or explosions to walk away from, no fist fights in random abandoned buildings, none of that.  The brilliance comes in the maneuvering, especially when Earl and the DEA agent both have breakfast in the same Waffle House, and the agent has no idea that he is talking to the mule he's been hunting.

I won't spoil the end, but it is very touching, and I can't imagine it ending any other way.

On the other hand, you have Honest Thief.  Clint Eastwood is 90 years old.  He's not doing action films anymore.  Liam Neeson, however, still has it in him to get in fist fights with multiple opponents, take a bullet and suffer virtually no ill effects, go on a high speed car chase, get involved in a shootout, and so on.  There's a woman to be protected, dirty cops to be outed, and justice to be served.  It's a pretty typical Hollywood/Liam Neeson movie.  Like Taken, but for retired folks!

At the same time, there is a story behind it (also, apparently Dodge is the sponsor of corrupt government agents and car chases, Chevy is the sponsor of suicide, and Ford is the sponsor of good government agents who get taken out by their own).  It's also interesting that more of Tom's skills and abilities are discovered throughout the film (via FBI briefings) that explain and enhance his role in the movie.  As the dirty agents make a move, he counters, and it gradually steps up and up and up until the final move at the end which outs the dirty agents and vindicates Tom.  I won't say what that final move is, but I appreciate that it was reserved for the end and not brought out early on, thus reducing the impact of the rest of the movie.  If things are too exciting too soon, it's gets too hard to maintain that excitement and suspense, and the end tends to be less amazing.

For Tom's part, his character isn't explored a whole lot other than official FBI briefings and an interesting conversation with his girlfriend when she learns that he's a bank robber.  However, the fact that he remains dedicated to her, to keeping her safe and wanting to be with her, does sort of relieve this burden.  While not explored, the character remains well within the boundaries established by the plot to be believable.

As I said, both movies are very good, though I like The Mule better.  Being able to bring together an interesting story without needing explosions and actions every other scene is a refined skill.  Similarly, having a slightly skewed ending is also a nice reprieve from the constant "good guys win and suffer no consequences" that is overly prevalent.

Good movies, good stories.  Learn from them.

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