“Blood Work” is Clint Eastwood’s twenty-third film as a director and, as a writer-director; Eastwood has proven to be the most interesting of the box office superstars. There was a time, in the late 1980s, when it seemed like Eastwood was going to follow Charles Bronson and Burt Reynolds into commercial extinction, but then Eastwood made “Unforgiven” which not only resurrected his own career, but also caused people to reappraise his earlier work. So now, “Play Misty for Me” is considered a great thriller and “The Outlaw Josey Wales” is considered one of the greatest westerns ever made.
“Blood Work” is the first of two novel adaptations (Eastwood’s currently filming “Mystic River” which he only directs) that Eastwood’s decided to attempt, back to back, after the box office success of Space Cowboys, and it’s yet another interesting character study from the man who’s made, aside from his profitable Dirty Harry franchise, many ambitious and interesting films: films like Bronco Billy, “Honkytonk Man,” “A Perfect World,” and, one of his most recent films, the criminally underrated True Crime, made before Space Cowboys and also based on a novel. In his recent films, Eastwood, now 72, hasn’t shied away from his age, but embraced it as an integral part of his characters and films, except maybe in True Crime where he could be seen romancing not one, but two younger women. In “Blood Work,” Eastwood uses age as a plot point, and, to be sure, Terry McCaleb is one of the frailest, most vulnerable characters that Eastwood’s ever played, in his first serial killer procedural since 1984’s “Tightrope,” which Eastwood is rumored to have “ghost” directed. There are no handcuffed hookers in “Blood Work.”
We open on Terry McCaleb, a seasoned FBI profiler, at a murder scene where the killer has left him a taunting message saying, “Catch me, McCaleb.” Later in the film, the killer will leave him a Happy Valentine’s message. McCaleb spots the killer, nicknamed “The Code Killer,” in a crowd, and chases him down a dark alley until McCaleb’s heart gives out, literally. Cut to two years later where McCaleb has received a heart transplant and is retired in Los Angeles, on a boat. He has a slacker (Jeff Daniels) for a neighbor, and an overbearing doctor (Anjelica Huston) and then, one day, a woman (Wanda De Jesus) shows up on his boat wanting McCaleb to help track down her sister’s killer. There’s a special connection: the murdered sister’s heart beats inside McCaleb’s stitched up chest.
McCaleb is already burdened with guilt and he promised the woman, Graciella, that he’ll make some inquiries, difficult since he doesn’t carry a badge anymore and the local cops resent him for stealing the publicity on a previous case. At this point, we expect “Blood Work” to follow the typical conventions of the serial killer genre, but “Blood Work” is a surprisingly leisurely paced, tranquil thriller. There’s scant talk of forensics; this murder investigation is decidedly human, especially when McCaleb discovers, to his horror, that the young woman’s murder, a seemingly random store shooting, has an eerie connection to not only The Code Killer, but his own beating heart.
Eastwood, as star and director and producer, is a smart enough man to know that any film entitled “Blood Work” must have a requisite amount of grisly details and shootings, and “Blood Work” has all of that, including an exhausting shootout on an abandoned tanker during the film’s finale, machine guns included, in what is the weakest scene in the film. But this is a very heartfelt thriller, pardon the pun, as McCaleb feels guilt at not only the fact that he has another person’s heart inside him, but that someone else who needed a heart is still waiting for one because of him. Graciella is very aware of the stress she’s causing McCaleb, who, after all, could die at any moment. He’s so weak that he hires the slacker neighbor, Buddy (Daniels), to drive him along the trail of clues because an exploding air bag would most certainly kill McCaleb.
The actors are all terrific in “Blood Work.” Eastwood does that Eastwood thing; that nothing and everything, he-man Cary Grant thing which only Eastwood can do, but the biggest surprises in the film are Daniels and De Jesus as Buddy and Graciella. Daniels has done so much physical comedy in recent years that you forget about his work in such films as “The House on Carroll Street” and Terms of Endearment. With Buddy, he accomplishes the feat of playing a seemingly plain, likable man who, nonetheless, projects something weird about his personality, a little kernel of sickness that turns people off without knowing why. De Jesus was unknown to me, except for the fact that she was one of the zombies in John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. As Graciella, she plays a woman who’s desperate to avenge her sister’s murder, and her relationship with McCaleb develops into one of the sexiest love scenes that I’ve seen in a long while, partly because of the stress she’s causing McCaleb by dragging him into this nightmare.
Does she have the right to ask him to do this? Is it asking too much? What is McCaleb’s obligation to the dead woman whose face we never clearly see (a neat touch), but whose beating heart is like a supporting character in the film?
I don’t mean to make “Blood Work” sound like it’s a great film. It’s not. It’s too calm and easygoing to be great. There are a few holes in Brian Helgeland’s script such as: How did the killer get hold of the blood matches in the computer? What was his real relationship with the man at the office that he killed who did have access to the blood files? Why didn’t the killer do away with the wife of the blood donor? Why does the killer hang around the LA area since McCaleb may or may not be permanently out of commission? As I said before, I also had trouble with the ending, which is essentially a long shootout on a dark boat complete with rapid fire and a punch line from a dying killer. My guess, having not read the novel, is that Eastwood just told the story faithfully, although you can tell by some of the quick editing during the finale that Eastwood may have also sensed that this was the weakest part of the film.
The identity of the killer plays into “Blood Work”’s DVD treatment which offers a “Making of” documentary and a conversation in Spanish between Eastwood, De Jesus and Paul Rodriguez who plays Detective Arrango. The documentary is your solid, run of the mill studio reel with good interviews and nice background detail, but they made a bit of a goof: they give away the identity of the killer. Now, that’s no big deal: the law of the economy of characters that we use when watching thrillers certainly comes in handy while watching “Blood Work” and I think that Forrest Gump could figure out who the killer is, and I don’t think Eastwood cares either. The film’s about relationships not clues. It’s not the giving away of the killer’s identity that bothers me, it’s the killer’s spill-the-beans speech that they show us in the featurette. You know the speech: the hero’s cornered the killer whose game face cracks, revealing his true psychotic self, where he proceeds to giggle and explain his entire reason for being. I always watch “Making of” featurettes before I watch the film, as I’m sure many people do, as a way of getting warmed up for the film, but you’d better skip this one.
Those criticisms aside, “Blood Work” is another triumph for Eastwood, who, given his autonomous relationship with Warner Bros., can make any film he chooses. Sadly, “Blood Work” was a box office failure, which may say more about audiences than the Warner Bros. marketing department. Terry McCaleb is a great Eastwood character: weak, vulnerable, aching to be loved. It would be a shame if the poor box office performance of “Blood Work” and True Crime pushed Eastwood back into doing “Dirty Harry 6″ or something stupid like that. He’s done those films, and they were great, but Clint Eastwood’s moved light years beyond that era, as an actor and director. Besides, what would Harry be nowadays, a 7-11 security guard?