By far the cleverest aspect of Clint Eastwood’s “Blood Work” is its title, which in retrospect viewers will realize has a wealth of meanings relevant to the plot and even offers a significant clue to the solution of the mystery. Unfortunately, as a whole the picture’s scenario is much less satisfying. It’s as convoluted as most printed police procedurals that–while they might be fine light reading at home in the evening with a fine Scotch at one’s side–come across as highly implausible when transferred to the big screen. The last act, in particular, goes overboard in more ways than one. Still, there’s enough that’s good in the picture to make it marginally recommendable, and it’s certainly preferable to the director-star’s last effort in a similar vein, 1998’s earnest but plodding “True Crime.”
Like that film, this one has a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a run-of-the-mill television movie. Eastwood plays Terry McCaleb, a FBI profiler forced into retirement by a heart attack he suffers while literally trying to chase down “The Code Killer,” a brilliant murderer who’s been toying with McCaleb, Hannibal Lecter style, by sending him cryptic messages. Two years later, McCaleb learns that his recent heart transplant was made possible by a still-unsolved murder, and against the advice of his doctor (Anjelica Huston) he takes up his old calling at the request of the donor’s sister (Wanda De Jesus) to catch the perpetrator. Can you guess who it turns out to be? Even if you can, the particular (as opposed to the general) identity of the criminal is what’s really designed to surprise, and the why is meant to be as mystifying as the who. Whether the picture will succeed in fooling you is another matter.
The script was fashioned from Michael Connelly’s novel by Brian Helgeland, whose adaptation of “L.A. Confidential” was rightly praised some years ago. But the source material in that instance came from James Ellroy, and was first-rate and deeply textured. “Blood Work” is simply not in the same class. The setup borders on the absurd, the twists seem arbitrary, the plot holes are enormous and the denouement is cheaply overwrought. In fact, if the story were told in a USA Network cable flick, it wouldn’t be greatly out of place.
Still, a few major elements in the film to save it from collapsing in a welter of contrivance. One is Eastwood–not so much as director (since his work here, while happily not as protracted and plodding as in some of his recent films, is still rather prosaic) but as star. He wittily plays on his tough-guy persona of nearly half a cinematic century–indeed, one of the happiest inspirations is the inclusion of some harmonica doodling on the soundtrack that, especially toward the close, recalls the scores that Ennio Morricone contributed to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, in a goodly number of which the young Eastwood himself starred. But at the same time he uses his advancing age to emphasize his character’s frailty, adding a poignant overlay to his traditional image; and though the combination isn’t a new one (he employed it to even better effect in “Unforgiven”), it still works, even helping to explain Terry’s halting, hesitant manner (though he can still stir himself to “Dirty Harry”-style action, as when he takes a shotgun to a suspicious car–although he turns out to be a pretty lousy shot). In fact, it’s arguable that “Blood Work” is more successful as a character study than a thriller.
The second element that lifts the picture is its frequent humor, much of it provided by Jeff Daniels, as a slothful neighbor of Terry’s who becomes the investigator’s driver and general factotum, and Paul Rodriguez, playing an L.A. detective who rants at McCaleb because the older man gets headlines while he toils in obscurity. To be sure, both actors could be charged with overplaying–Rodriguez in particular seems to know no limits–but they get their quota of laughs, as well as serving as useful red herrings in the plot (the killer’s voice heard on tape at one point sure sounds like one of them). De Jesus strikes the right poses as the late donor’s sister, although once again there’s something not entirely seemly in so young a woman’s sexual attraction to a 72-year old star, however virile he might once have been; and Mason Lucero is nicely unaffected as her nephew. Huston, unfortunately, is wasted in the short, clumsily-written role of McCaleb’s cardiologist.
As is true of most of Eastwood’s directorial efforts, “Blood Work” is a technically spare film, made without frills; Tom Stern’s cinematography is merely competent, Lennie Niehaus’ music barely registers, and Joel Cox’s editing is rather ragged and lax. Some scenes seem clumsily staged and framed, while others run on too long. The lack of slickness has a certain rugged nobility to it, rather like the star himself; but sometimes this “Blood” seems as tired as its protagonist–it’s not anemic, but, like McCaleb, it could occasionally use an infusion of Geritol. Still, the pulse never disappears entirely, and the picture crosses the finish line winded but still game.