Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Angus Sampson & Tony Mahony
Stars: Angus Sampson, Hugo Weaving, Ewen Leslie, Leigh Whannell, Noni Hazlehurst, Geoff Morrell, John Noble, Georgina Haig, Chris Pang.
The crime genre is one that Australian filmmakers seem to excel at, and The Mule is another superior example of this retro crime drama. It follows on from such great films as Felony and Animal Kingdom, etc, and stamps itself as one of the top local productions of the year.
The Mule has been loosely inspired by the true tale of a New Zealand man who tried to smuggle cocaine filled condoms through customs in the 80s. The incident inspired television writer Jaime Brown (best known for the Graham Kennedy biopic The King, etc) to pen a blackly comic thriller using that scenario as a starting point. Comic actor Angus Sampson (100 Bloody Acres, etc) and his mate Leigh Whannell (one of the creators of the Saw franchise) later optioned the screenplay and rewrote it to turn it into this entertaining dark comedy.
Sampson and Whannell (who have worked together numerous times in the past) also made the decision to set the film in 1983, a time when Australia was competing in the America’s Cup, trying to break one of the longest winning streaks in sporting history. This adds another dimension to the story and brings a sense of tension to the drama.
Sampson himself plays Ray Jenkins, the rather simple minded but good natured dullard who has just been named clubman of the year at his football club. The terminally shy Ray is a man of few words and still lives at home with his doting but smothering mother (Noni Hazlehurst) and stepfather (Geoff Morrell). Ray is the quiet type who is initially reluctant to accompany his teammates on the end of season trip to Thailand.
At the urging of his friend Gavin (Whannell), the team’s captain, Ray reluctantly agrees to go. But he is soon being pressed into service as a drug mule by Gavin, who is buying drugs at the behest of the team’s main sponsor the corrupt businessman Pat Shepard (John Noble, from the miniseries The Devil’s Playground, etc). Subtle threats are made against Ray’s parents to bring pressure on him to cooperate.
Ray swallows several condoms filled with cocaine, which he then brings back to Australia. At the airport though Ray panics and draws attention to himself. He is arrested by the Federal police, and detained in a hotel room under 24 hour surveillance. According to the law at the time, the police can only hold him for seven days, or two bowel movements, to gather the necessary evidence to convict him of smuggling drugs.
Thus begins a cat and mouse game between the constipated Ray, who refuses to go to the toilet, and his minders who are desperate to make him give up the drugs. This struggle between a determined Ray and the watchful authorities is juxtaposed against the tantalising underdog struggle unfolding on television screens and sets up a nice contrast. It makes for some claustrophobic tension. But it also sets the scene for a couple of gross out, stomach churning moments that will have you laughing out loud while wincing in disgust.
The Mule marks the feature film directorial debut for Sampson, who co-directed the film with another first timer in Tony Mahony, and they do a great job of tapping into the darker comic potential of the scenario. They don’t gloss over the seedier elements of drug running nor the dangerous cost of becoming a drug mule.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Sampson is perfect as the quiet, slow witted doofus who actually proves to be a lot smarter than people give him credit for, and this is easily his best performance on screen. Hugo Weaving revels in the role of Croft, the cynical, world weary and hard nosed cop who is not averse to breaking the rules a little to coerce a satisfactory result. Ewen Leslie is also good as Paris, the more corrupt cop who sees an opportunity to profit from Ray’s predicament. Hazlehurst is excellent and hits all the right notes as Ray’s mother. Noble is both suave but also sinister and menacing as the ruthless Shepard. Georgina Haig also registers strongly as Ray’s lawyer who works to try and free her client. And Whannell is suitably unlikeable as the sleazy Gavin.
The period detail is superb and evocative, although it times it seems as though production designer Paddy Reardon has laid on the 80s vibe with a trowel. Stefan Duscio’s cinematography is also rich and effectively captures the tone of the period.
Given the perceived reluctance of local audiences to support home-grown movies, the producers of The Mule have opted for a slightly different distribution model to bring the film to audiences and to turn a profit where most other local films have failed dismally this year. Following a series of “event screenings” in capital cities accompanied by Q&As, the film will be made available via a Video On Demand platform. And this wonderfully entertaining crowd pleasing comedy crime film deserves to be seen by a broad audience.