Clint Eastwood directs and stars in a drama about an elderly man who becomes a drug runner for a Mexican cartel.

To praise The Mule by saying that it’s the best film ever made by an 88-year-old American director who also stars in it is to say nothing at all, because there’s never been such a thing before. Nor should Clint Eastwood’s 37th feature be damned with faint praise this way, as no caveats or excuses are needed.

This based-on-a-true-story yarn about a still-kicking but nearly destitute senior who starts running drugs for a Mexican cartel is engaging, humorous and, it would seem, quite personal in the way it portrays a man making an attempt to atone for his deficiencies as a husband and father. Eastwood’s good-times-seeking old-timer is a temperamental contrast to the cantankerous and insulting one he played in the smash hit Gran Torino a decade back, both written with the star in mind by Nick Schenk. Longtime fans should eat it up.

First seen sporting a sunhat and tending to some flowers in a greenhouse, Eastwood does look noticeably older than he did when he was last onscreen in the little-seen Trouble With the Curve six years ago; he walks slowly, looks a bit frail and for the first time lacks the full measure of the impressive build he’s had from the beginning of his career. To see him participating in something called the National Daylily League seems like something of a joke.

But as spry and engaged in the moment as his Earl Stone seems to be, he’s none too appreciated by his immediate family, including ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and especially daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood), who leaves the room whenever he shows up, even at her own daughter’s wedding. It appears that the man was just never there when he needed to be and now he’s paying the price.

But there’s worse to come for old Earl when he runs out of money and is kicked out of his house. Chance, however, comes to his rescue as he’s hired, partly due to his perfect driving record, to “just drive” to El Paso to make a delivery. It’s the beginning of a beautiful, not to mention lucrative, arrangement, and for a good long while it proves mutually beneficial to the cartel (Earl is as reliable on the job as he was unavailable for his family) and to Earl himself, who can spread some money around and eventually move back into his house.

At the same time, federal agents in Chicago, led by a DEA special agent in charge (Laurence Fishburne), are trying to nail some cartel drug runners out West but are suffering through a long dry spell. It may take a while, but you know that eventually the unit’s men will cross paths with the unsuspicious Earl, especially after a new agent, Colin Bates (a smallish role played by Eastwood’s American Sniper star Bradley Cooper), comes on board.

For some time the arrangement works wonderfully well; the drug boys get what they want with no hassle, while Earl regains his financial footing with plenty left over for the ladies he wants back in his life. Although it’s nothing in comparison to the old man’s outbursts toward minorities in Gran Torino, the new film does deliberately feature some of Earl’s antiquated nomenclature, including when he tells a lost black family how much he likes “to help Negroes” (they set him straight) and a roadside encounter he has with a self-described “Dykes on Bikes” motorcycle gang — episodes meant to express the man’s 50-years-ago mindset rather than any jaundiced opinion of minorities.

Old Earl is suddenly raking it in, to the extent that he can finance the reopening of a pal’s bar, and the success of the arrangement eventually comes to the attention of cartel boss Laton (Andy Garcia), who conducts business meetings at his estate while shooting skeet with a solid gold rifle. Laton comes to like the old gringo so much that he invites him to one of his big parties and gifts him with two friendly young ladies for the night (whatever happens is implied but, happily, not seen). But suddenly things go south, with nasty new overseers making life miserable for Earl and the increasingly frustrated DEA feeling the need for some quick results.

There is bad news on the domestic front as well, as Mary becomes very ill. When Earl, by way of an explanation and apology for not being there for her when she and the family needed him, says, “I thought it was more important to be somebody out there,” the feeling is inescapable that Eastwood is addressing his own constant immersion in his filmmaking career, even as he’s said that he patterned some of the old man’s habits after his own grandfather.

Eastwood the director cranks up some genuine suspense in the late going; there’s no guarantee that Earl is going to make it out of this mess alive, as the director has killed off his own character more than once in the past. The story’s climax takes some twists and turns that are both melodramatic and unexpected, with the generally prosaic Earl ultimately concluding, “You can buy anything, but I couldn’t buy time.”

Few leading men in film history have been active this long (Eastwood made his screen debut 63 years ago), and probably none has ever had star billing above the title for this long. And how many modern directors have made as many films as he has? (Spielberg has directed 31 over a comparable period.) Eastwood has made some slack and overlong pictures over the years, but this is not one of them, and there is visual vitality here resulting from the first collaboration between the director and Canadian cinematographer Yves Belanger, who has worked with Xavier Dolan and especially Jean-Marc Vallee on the likes of Wild and HBO’s Big Little Lies. Also fresh and welcome is the unobtrusive score by Cuban-born jazz great Arturo Sandoval.

Less cranky and inciting than Gran Torino but persuasively expressive in conveying an old man’s regrets along with his desire to improve himself even in late age, The Mule shows that Eastwood’s still got it, both as a director and actor.

An end credit dedicates the movie to two of Eastwood’s close friends, Pierre (Rissient) and Richard (Schickel).

roduction company: Malpaso
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Lawrence Fishburne, Michael Pena, Dianne Wiest, Ignacio Serricchio, Andy Garcia, Alison Eastwood, Ray Hernandez, Lobo Sebastian, Manny Montana, Noel Gugliemi
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Nick Schenk, inspired by the
New York Times Magazine article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule” by Sam Dolnick
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Tim Moore, Kristina Rivera, Jessica Meier, Dan Friedkin, Bradley Thomas
Executive producer: Aaron L. Gilbert
Director of photography: Yves Belanger
Production designer: Kevin Ishioka
Costume designer: Deborah Hopper
Editor: Joel Cox
Music: Arturo Sandoval

Rated R, 117 minutes