This film is based on a true story of a World War II vet named Leo Sharp.
A 90-year-old horticulturist and Korean War veteran turns drug mule for a Mexican cartel.
90-year-old Earl Stone becomes the oldest drug mule for a Mexican cartel. He manages to elude the DEA because he does not fit the profile of the typical transporter. Earl uses the money from his criminal activities to help fellow veterans and his granddaughter, and reunites after a long estrangement from his family. The DEA ultimately arrests and imprisons Earl.
Things take a complicated turn for the Cartel when right-hand man Gustavo (Clifton Collins Jr.) has boss Laton (Andy Garcia) killed, to take over. Then, he demands handler Julio (Ignacio Serricchio) to keep Earl (Clint Eastwood) on a tighter leash; this, due to the DEA recently zeroing in on the Cartel’s operations from all the info provided by member-turned-informant Luis (Eugene Cordero).
During his twelfth run, Earl gets the news that his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) is gravely ill -there were signs of this during his granddaughter Ginny’s (Taissa Farmiga) graduation, which Mary tried to brush off as unimportant-. When he angers Ginny after claiming he has “important business to deal with”, he makes the decision of putting the drop on hold so he can be by Mary’s side. He makes amends with her and reconciles with his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood).
Meanwhile, both the DEA and the Cartel are hot on Earl’s trail: agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Pena) are on the look for “a black pickup truck” -which is what Earl drives- and catch up with Earl on a motel. Bates and Earl share a friendly conversation at the motel’s diner, but Bates never realizes he had his man right there, partly because Earl adequately concealed his truck to keep it off sight, and Earl gets to walk off safely. Shortly after, two Cartel henchmen capture Earl and almost kill him for what they perceived was a betrayal, but he only ends badly beaten up as a warning. He resumes his delivery trip; however, Bates and Trevino figure it out and, eventually, Earl is cornered and arrested in a roadblock. Despite the circumstances, Bates shows concern and respect for him.
At trial, against his attorney’s advice, Earl decides to plead guilty to all charges on him and is sent to prison. Before being taken away, his family reassure their love for him, which seems to be comforting.
In the final sequence, Earl is seen as an inmate, taking exquisite care of the prison’s flower garden.
The film opens with Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood), who grows daylilies, winning another award for his flowers. At the same time, his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) is getting (re-)married elsewhere. Granddaughter Ginny is initially optimistic that Earl will show up but grandma Mary Stone – Earl’s ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) knows he will ultimately disappoint everyone. In fact, Earl stands up his family once more.Cut to 10 years later and internet flower businesses have driven Earl into foreclosure. He shows up at Ginny’s birthday party and Iris causes a scene. Mary realizes that Earl is there looking for a place to live, when she sees all the possessions in his beat-up old truck.
One of Ginny’s shady friends gives Earl a business card and tells him he knows someone who is hiring drivers. Good money, no questions asked. Earl finally calls and goes to a garage where Mexican goons put a duffel bag in the back of his truck as well as a cell phone. He is told to never use the phone but to answer it “night or day.” He is to never look in the bag, park the truck and come back in an hour. He does as told and finds an envelope stuffed with cash in the glove compartment.
Meanwhile, the DEA has brought a new hot shot agent, Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) to try and catch drug dealers and traffic into the US. He and his partner (played by Michael Pena) recruit an informer and get to work.
Earl buys himself a new truck and gets his home out of foreclosure. A Korean war vet, he visits the VA and finds it has been gutted by a fire. “If only someone would donate some money to repair it,” says a volunteer, eying Earl’s new truck.
Earl attends Ginny’s wedding but Mary and Iris are distant. Mary tells Earl that if has truly changed, it will take some time and effort. It won’t be instant acceptance.
Earl does another run, impressing the Mexican hoods with his new truck. The cartel boss, Laton, is also amazed that a 90-year-old nicknamed “El Tata” is the most successful new mule for his organization.
The VA holds a big reopening celebration. Earl is a hero. He also pays for granddaughter Ginny’s education and attends her graduation ceremony. Iris is still distant but Mary is starting to come around. But she also has developed a bad cough.
The DEA has learned of the existence of “El Tata” and is beginning to gather clues to his identity. All they know is that he has carried more drugs than any other carrier and he has a black truck. Earl has many several more drug runs and has gained the respect of the Mexican gangsters.
Earl does a run and bumps into DEA agent Colin Bates at a coffee shop, the night after the DEA stakes out a motel looking for El Tata. Earl gives him advice about his family, telling him “Don’t be like me.”
Laton brings Earl to Mexico to meet him and throws a big party in his honor. Unfortunately, his underlings feel they can do a better job and murder Laton. The new boss tells the Mexican hoods that they must crack down on Earl, and not give him the leniency to meander on his drug runs, because there’s too much money at stake.
Mary is brought home for hospice care to die. Earl has just started his first run for the new boss but knows this is his last chance to make things right, so he disappears. The DEA and the Mexican cartel is frantic that he’s gone off the grid for the first time.
Iris comes around as Earl stays by his ex-wife’s bedside until she dies, then attends the funeral. She invites him to spend Thanksgiving dinner with the family. He then resumes his drug delivery.
The hoods who were supposed to be following Earl see his truck and follow him to a truck stop, where they beat him up. They take the flier from the memorial service and realize he has a legitimate reason to have vanished, but their new boss sees things differently. At first, he wants Earl killed. But they plead his case. He tells them it will be their heads if Earl doesn’t complete the delivery.
However Bates now has ID’d Earl’s truck and he is finally stopped and arrested. At trial, Earl’s lawyer attempts to paint him as a broke, desperate war hero trying to provide for his family. But Earl stops her and pleads guilty to all charges. His daughter and granddaughter kiss him. Iris says “At least we’ll know where to find you.”
The film ends with Earl growing daylilies in the prison garden.