Movie Review: The Mule
Polkadate February 2019. As Buck Owens and Ringo Starr sang: “They're gonna put me in the movies, They're gonna make a big star out of me, they’re gonna make a movie about a man who’s sad and lonely…” that actually happened to 18 polka dancers from Texas. They were summoned to Georgia to appear as dancing extras in a movie, Th e Mule, that Clint Eastwood was producing and directing. (See their fun accounts in an accompanying story).
For centuries four-legged mules have been used to transport contraband across borders due to their hardiness. The term was passed on to humans who transported contraband in the late 1900s.
This column will explore the relationship between the film version of Th e Mule and the actual occurrences that inspired the movie. The movie was adapted from an article in a major newspaper and the screen play was written by an experienced writer. As with almost all “Hollywood” treatments of non-fiction tales, parts of it were fictionalized for broader appeal.
This is the story of Leo Sharp. The movie treatment will be prefaced with a (M). The mule’s real name, Leo Sharp, will be used to avoid confusion.
Synopsis of the movie: A spry gentleman, Leo Sharp, in his late 80s was arrested and convicted of smuggling thousands of pounds of illegal drugs from the American/Mexican border to the northern states. The cartel’s money is so good that Sharp continues working for many years. He uses the extra money for good causes helping out others in need including saving his veteran’s lodge from foreclosure. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents are trying to figure out how the Mexican cartels are shipping large amounts of cocaine to Chicago and Detroit. They stumble onto the cartel’s bookkeeper and coerce him into giving them information that eventually leads them to be on the lookout for an older white man. They finally locate the black Lincoln pickup truck (nice product placement throughout the movie) and knowing that the cartel is monitoring Sharp’s movements; stage a normal traffic stop on the interstate to prevent the cartel knowing the DEA is on to its scheme. The movie ends with the arrest. The movie version has two other story lines, one is Sharp’s failed marriage and fatherhood which is rescued in the end (hooray for Hollywood) and second, a fairly accurate description of the illegal drug distribution workings. There is also a moral theme used throughout that family life over work life should always be appreciated.
The real mule was Leo Sharp, a WWII combat veteran (Italy), whose abilities to graft and raise day-lilies was legendary in the floral world. Busloads of lily-lovers would make pilgrimages to his house and gardens to purchase his one-of-a-kind flowers. He had his own catalog (paper) from which his mail-order business profited greatly. At flower conventions he was always the dapper gentlemen dressed in solid white or solid black leisure suits, which conflicted with his daily sloppy attire. (M) Leo wore spiffy seersucker or linen suits with bowties at the conventions. With the advent of the internet, sales from his paper catalog declined, and Leo refused to move forward with technology resulting in declining sales leading to foreclosure. (M) Real. Some of the best scenes are his bewilderment with cell phone usage.
The Justice Department never released how he got into the drug trade, but possibly through his Mexican employees. (M) He is offered the job from a Mexican at a family wedding. The portrayal as him being alienated from his family due to his always putting his business over family events has never been documented. Leo had never had a traffic ticket or a run-in with the law and was in financial straits. The cartel found him to be the perfect mule.
He went to work as a mule for the Sinaloa Cartel, of which the head of, El Chapo, is in the daily headlines as he is being tried in Federal Court in New York. El Chapo's legendary speed at moving drugs across the country swiftly was probably the result of Sharp. The only reason Sharp ever gave for his actions was the cocaine came from plants and, like his day-lilies, they gave people happiness. And then there was the thousand-dollars-a-kilo that the mules were paid just to drive from one state to another not lifting a finger, just driving, and he was averaging a couple of hundred of kilos per trip.
In the beginning Sharp was moving duffel bags full of cash, which increased his credibility with the cartel. The DEA estimated that in 2010 Sharp had made well over a million dollars (tax-free of course) just driving his Lincoln pick-up truck down the interstates without getting killed or caught. Later, Sharp told ABC News that an old man driving safely down the road would never get stopped.
LIFE AS A MULE
Over the decade that he was driving, he only once decided to give it up. The cartel didn’t want to lose “Tata” (grandpa), so the cartel head brought him to Mexico and plied him with women and impressed him with the fact that they have no problem making quitters “disappear.” (M) A grand party is thrown and Tata is shown enjoying the favors of “friendly” women and gracious living; in another scene he is shown a former courier lying dead in a trunk, these were all real events according to court records. Tata gets completely on board the smuggling game.
The drug kingpin and Sharp even take vacations together to Hawaii and he soon becomes a favorite of both the “Boss” and his henchmen. (M) Sharp always has bags of pecans in the bed of his truck. In real life he carried onions, which would make a great mask to detour drug dogs.
When Sharp is finally tracked down on a drug run by the DEA and subtly pulled over so as not to alert the watchful cartel, the entire scene is recorded on the dashcam of the police car and makes better watching than the movie. When confronted in the final take down, Sharp jumps (he was spry) out of his truck moving toward the officer cupping his hand to his ear to play the deaf old man and demanding to know why he was stopped.
The officer says he has to search him for weapons. Sharp once again plays the helpless old man and is insulted that the officer thought Sharp would harm him and lets the officer know it in no uncertain terms. Sharp is put in the police car and the drug dog sniffs the outside of the truck which has a locked cover on it. Sharp denies knowledge of what’s in the back of the truck and says he hasn’t looked in it for days.
When he is informed that the dog has indicated the presence of narcotics, the officer asks why it would indicate it. Sharp replies, “I don’t know why, maybe he likes narcotics. I would never try them, because I didn’t want to become an addict.”
The officer says, “Well, he’s a narcotics dog, I wouldn’t say he likes them, but he is trained to find them.” The officer said he was going to search the vehicle. Sharp replies, “Why don’t you go ahead and kill me, let me leave the planet.” When asked why, Sharp contradicts himself and says that he has places to go and people to see (unless he means the afterlife).
When asked for the key to the cover, Sharp says that his sister in Iowa has the key. The officer walks to the cab of the truck, leans in and takes a set of keys out and unlocks the truck lid and opens it, but is unable to get the tailgate down. The officer then lifts the dog (rather ungracefully) into the back of the truck. The officer then returns to the car and tells him that the dog has indicated narcotics.
Sharp then again requests to be killed. The officer tells him he is under arrest. Sharp asks, “What the hell for?”; “possession of narcotics”; Sharp acts insulted and tells the officer “Never in my G**D** life has anything like this ever happened to me.”
In the back of the truck were five duffel bags with 104 kilos (240 pounds, approximately $2.5 million, wholesale) of cocaine. (M) Earlier in the movie a policeman confronts Sharp in a parking lot for an unknown reason, and he sweet talks his way out of a search and bribes the officer with tins of popcorn.
'I DID WHAT I DID'
Sharp was tried in federal court and told reporters that he would never spend a night in a “toilet with bars.” Prior to sentencing (May 7, 2014, his 90th birthday) he told reporters that if he was given prison time, he would get a pistol and shoot himself in the head. It had been arranged that he would be under house arrest until prison time. At sentencing he told the judge he was heartbroken for what he did, "but I did what I did, but now it’s done.”
He also requested that instead of prison, the judge should allow him to grow Hawaii pineapples on his Florida farm. They would be the sweetest pineapples you ever tasted, and the money he made would go to paying the $500,000 fine that was tacked on to his case. The judge said five years in prison. Upon leaving the courtroom, Sharp said that age should not matter when it comes to sentencing guidelines.
Sharp did not break the cartel’s code of silence and never spoke of any of his connections, full well knowing he and his family would be assassinated. However, a phone number on a scrap of paper in the trash pile on his floorboard led to a Florida connection which created a chain reaction of drug busts of 19 people severely crippling the cartel's operations and possibly bringing down El Chapo.
In 2015, one year into his sentence, Sharp’s lawyer convinced the judge that Sharp had six months to live. Sharp was released on health reasons and age. Cheating the judge and the grim reaper for another year and a half, he passed away in obscurity on Dec. 20, 2016.
Eastwood and the screenwriter (who had written the brilliant movie Gran Torino for Eastwood) had taken the usual liberties and had invented the entire ex-wife and family situation, dialogue, and other situations (pecans). Sharp was supposedly still married at his death; however, no obituary or death notice was published. The previous year, in an obituary for a friend, he had signed his name as Leo Sharp Sr. indicating a son.
For some reason, (M) the smuggling point was El Paso, but in reality, Sharp’s journeys were from Arizona, the site of the cartel’s smuggling tunnels. Eastwood said that Sharp did bail-out his VFW and that Squeezebox and the dancers were recreating an actual occurrence; he did regain his flower farm and helped charities with money from his work with the cartels.
As far as The Mule is as a movie, it was obviously never intended to be a blockbuster or Oscar gathering endeavor. Eastwood chose to tell a real-life interesting story with embellishments at which he succeeded. The story-line never really takes off, as the ending is already known by the audience, however by surrounding himself with top-notch actors and his proven film crew, he created an entertaining movie well worth having the cream of Texas polka dancers involved with to provide the only happy scene in the movie.