There are films that are based on a true story, and then there’s “The Mule.” It’s easy to see how directors Tony Mahony and Angus Sampson, who star in and co-wrote the script, would be attracted to this outlandish story. But taking inspired ingredients and turning them into a worthy genre film entails knowing the limitations of the story and maximizing its strongest points, advice the filmmakers could’ve used at any time during the making of “The Mule.” A movie that jumps into its central premise before quickly settling into tedium, Mahony and Sampson try to wring as much mileage of possible out of a grown man trying not to take a shit.
But in order for the audience to play along, you have to make us give a shit, and “The Mule” does try. The story follows Ray (Sampson), a schlubby Mama’s boy who works an unremarkable TV repair shop job where he doesn’t get as much as a lunch break. But there is a silver lining in his life —he’s just won the player of the year award for his football club, not because he’s best man on the field, but mostly because he showed up the most often. So to celebrate the end of the season, the club’s sketchy owner Pat Shepherd (John Noble) is sending the team to Thailand. But he has ulterior motives. Pat has got Gavin (Leigh Whannell) set up to smuggle heroin back into the country and wants Ray to act as the titular mule. While he’s childhood friends with Gavin, Ray at first turns down the job, but the lure of money is too strong to resist, so with great reluctance he gets involved. For the most part, the trip and purchase of the drugs goes smoothly, and Ray chokes back twenty condoms filled with heroin and gets back on the plane to Australia. All he has to do is get through customs, but one crucial mistake puts him under suspicion of transporting drugs and into the custody of Detective Croft (Hugo Weaving) and Detective Paris (Ewen Leslie).
Co-written by Whannel of “Saw” fame, “The Mule” allows the filmmaker to once again squeeze the most entertainment out of a limited location scenario. While they can’t yet arrest Ray, the cops can keep him under their watch for at least a week, and so they squirrel away the young man into a hotel by the airport and literally wait for him to shit. The only thing Ray can do to save himself is not to shit, and that is basically your entire movie. Outside the walls of the hotel, Pat is getting antsy for his shipment and holds Gavin responsible if Ray gets arrested, or worse confesses to the cops. And so begins a whirlwind of activity that would presumably ratchet up the tension, but instead the movie mostly stalls out and hangs its hope on a finale that is not as clever as it thinks it is and exposes itself to mostly be a one flush effort.
The main issue is that “The Mule” is far too in love with tracking Ray’s uncomfortable and increasingly unhealthy efforts to keep it all in, which comes at the expense of the characters. Weaving swaggers into the movie, casually and hilariously raising a middle finger before he even utters a word, only to have his character make a moral shift that doesn’t quite gel. And the same goes for Leslie, whose Detective Croft makes a shocking turn that pulls the rug of expectation out from under the audience. But the move, played as a twist in the plot, doesn’t work because it’s not rooted in anything we’ve seen from the character or within a context where that action would make sense. Moreover, you wonder how Ray managed to get the world’s most casual, beautiful and utterly useless public defender (Georgina Haig), whose sole aim seems to be to prove the cops wrong and whose only advice is to tell Ray to hold it in.
And that’s right where Whannel, in his role as co-screenwriter, wants Ray. “The Mule” never misses an opportunity to find its unlikely hero doubled over, farting, stomach growling, being forced to eat something, beaten, and submitted to almost anything you could think of by the cops around him to move his bowels. And without saying too much, things go even one step further, with one particular gross-out sequence prolonged for gag effect, but it’s not Ray’s endurance we feel, but our own. The movie never treats his situation above the level of quirk, and when “The Mule” attempts to shift to a darker, more serious tone in the latter third, it never makes that leap believably. Other elements tossed in as texture —such as Ray’s lawyer sneaking a quick joint in the car, or the story being framed around the America’s Cup— don’t work in building up a movie that is never more than a feature length underlining of just how wacky and weird this true story was.
Mahony and Sampson certainly know how to lay out a crime/thriller/comedy structurally, but they unfortunately mishandle the tone and momentum this sort of movie needs to work. As Croft cheekily lets the air slowly out of a balloon at one point, making a farting sound to humiliate Ray, it’s an apt metaphor for the film as well. Filled with promise from the opening minutes, with each succeeding sixty seconds, “The Mule” deflates, emptying what little there was inside and lets it circle the bowl. [C-]