“The Mule” is a bloody, violent and yet grimly comic tale of an unlikely drug smuggler and the ugly war of wills that began the moment he got caught.
Because from the moment we see Raymond, played by Angus Sampson, who co-directed and co-wrote this “based on true events” story, we know he’ll be caught. Ray is undergoing a full cavity search in customs. Top to bottom, he looks guilty.
“Mule” then takes us back two weeks so we can see how Ray reached that point. A hulking fellow, Ray earns a big honor from his Australian football club. He is bullied by his TV repair shop boss, doted on by his hovering mum (Noni Hazlehurst), tapped for cash by his boozing stepdad and cajoled by his “brother,” his best mate and teammate, Gavin.
Leigh Whannell, co-creator and co-star of “Saw,” makes Gavin the sort of best friend Ray doesn’t need. Gavin likes his drugs, is slippery and manipulative. And he’s in cahoots with the team owner (veteran Aussie character actor John Noble) in a drug smuggling scheme. They want Ray to come along on a season-ending team trip to Bangkok and bring a load of heroin back. And they’ve got leverage — deadly leverage.
Early scenes establish Ray’s doltish spinelessness. He waffles, he hems and haws, even after Gavin’s made the purchase.
But Gavin trots out that word “brothers” often enough that Ray relents. As in such films as “Maria, Full of Grace,” we’re treated to a “How To” manual on drug smuggling — condoms full of powder that Ray must swallow, “Cotton shirt — breathes, hides your sweat.” No eating before the flight, but don’t refuse the meal on plane.
“Stewardesses’ll flag you as suspicious.”
Despite all those preps, Ray is caught. The cops are sure he’s holding. But they need his digestive tract’s cooperation to prove it.
It’s 1983, and Australia is eaten up with America’s Cup fever. Even the cops who hold Ray in a hotel room, waiting for nature to call, are swept up in it. Ray, though, is made of stern stuff. We see why he’s valuable to his football team. He won’t break. Or take a potty break.
Hugo “Matrix” Weaving delightfully chews up[ his scenes as a cop not above roughing Ray up, with Ewen Leslie as the “good cop” who tries to cajole our lad into taking a laxative.
The third act violence comes from the club owner, who has foreign-born henchmen he uses to try and get his cargo. But the humor, sprinkled throughout, comes from Ray’s bowel predicament and the clumsy ways he tries to survive it.
The story turns desperate here and there, but there’s often a defusing moment of humor. One henchman is Thai with the unhappy name of Phuk, and every time he’s summoned, there’s a laugh.
The script has just enough twists to keep us guessing, even though those twists have an air of predictability about them. But first scene to last, Sampson’s Ray is sympathetic to the point of pathetic, a hapless pawn intellectually over-matched by all the hustlers, relatives and cops he’s trying to outwit. Does he have the stomach for it?
MPAA Rating: unrated, with graphic violence, drugs and drug use, nudity and profanity
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Georgina Haig, John Noble
Credits: Directed by Tony Mahony, Angus Sampson, written by Jaime Brown, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell. An XLRator Media release.
Running time: 1:43