Blood Work Review

After a pretty extraordinary career spanning nearly fifty years, Clint Eastwood has earned the right to his flops but it's surprising that Blood Work was one of them. Although certainly not in the class of his best films, it's an intelligent and very well made thriller that gains distinction from an interesting central character and the undeniable charisma of its leading man.

The opening of the film is a object lesson in setting up a suspenseful narrative. Terry McCaleb (Eastwood), a renowned FBI profiler, is called to the scene of a homicide in Los Angeles where his name has been written on the wall in blood along with a series of numbers and the exhortation to "Catch Me". Leaving the scene, along with obnoxious LAPD detective Arrango (Rodriguez), McCaleb notices a man in the crowd wearing blood-covered sneakers like those which have left prints at the crime scene. He gives chase but before he can catch his target he falls down with a massive heart attack, only managing to deliver a wild shot into the killer's back. This first ten minutes is brilliantly directed with good dialogue and a genuinely tense foot chase which is reminiscent of the one at the end of Tightrope. It's also interesting for the way that it uses the thing we're all thinking - isn't Clint a bit old for all this running around - as part of the story, adding an extra dimension to the scene.

Following this beginning, the rest of the film never quite lives up to the possibilities. Two years later, McCaleb has just recovered from a heart transplant operation and is surprised to be contacted by a Hispanic woman called Graciella Rivers (De Jesus) whose sister has recently been murdered during a supermarket robbery. McCaleb refuses her request to help her find the killer until she reveals that it was her sister's heart that saved his life. Feeling honour bound to assist, McCaleb begins investigating the case, which has been baffling Arrango, the cop on the case, and he discovers that the crime seems to be linked to the killing of a man at a cash dispenser some weeks before. Despite the protests of his cardiologist Dr Fox (Huston), McCaleb begins piecing together the links between the crimes and discovers that the link between the victims is closer to his own interests than he could have possibly imagined. Enlisting his slobbish neighbour Buddy Noone (Daniels) as an impromptu driver, McCaleb re-opens the investigation on his own terms, all the time become more emotionally attached to Graciella and her nephew Raymond. But before long he discovers that the crimes are not only connected to each other but also to the events leading up to his heart attack and he starts to wonder whether his new heart will withstand the pressure of reliving his own past.

This is all standard serial-killer stuff and the pacing is pretty somber throughout which threatens to cast a decidedly dreary pall over the proceedings. The plot points are made in a plodding manner and the identity of the killer is blatantly obvious from the first time we see him, rendering fairly pointless the rather clever clue to his identity given in the number code. If you don't guess whodunnit then you deserve to have your junior sleuth badge taken away. The supporting characters don't much help, being an amalgam of familiar types such as the shouting cop and the concerned doctor. Eastwood's old knack for good casting just about redeems this aspect, since Paul Rodriguez is a skillful comedian and Anjelica Huston manages to be riveting even in a tiny role like this one.

The central trio of characters fare rather better. Wanda De Jesus is an attractive and subtle presence as Graciella and the unfamiliar Hispanic rhythms she brings to her dialogue are appealingly fresh. Her character isn't all that well developed and eventually becomes just another damsel in distress but De Jesus remains very watchable. As Buddy, Jeff Daniels doesn't have all that much to do but he's an actor who is always fun to watch and he can always be relied upon to give his lines an interesting reading. He's got enough weight to match Eastwood in the way that a lot of actors can't and Eastwood's films are always at their best when he's working with someone who can fight at his level - such as James Woods in True Crime, Hackman in Unforgiven, Malkovich in In The Line of Fire.

However, and it's perhaps redundant to say this, the film belongs to Clint. After a few mediocre films, Blood Work sees him back on form as an actor and he is obviously having a marvellous time reliving some of his past glories. It has been observed that it could very well be a 'Dirty Harry' movie in some respects and, with apologies to the creator of the character Michael Connelly, McCaleb could well be an older, wiser Harry Callahan who has got sick and tired of beating up punks and bashing heads with the system and just wants to relax on his boat. Certainly, Blood Work is considerably superior in writing and direction to any of the sequels to Dirty Harry - although it can't hold a candle to the original Don Siegel movie. Eastwood is in fine fettle here with all the familiar details we know and love - the sideways squint, the self-righteous grimace, the tough-guy asides - and a new level to this familiar creation. McCaleb's awareness of his own age and his encroaching, if delayed, death is beautifully conveyed by his body language and it's rather refreshing to see a star-driven cop movie in which everybody BUT the hero suggests that he might be "too old for this shit". The scene where he is seduced by Graciella is a little unfortunate in this context, it has to be said. His direction is assured, if a little lumbering in places, and he builds up nicely to the climax on an abandoned tanker - shades of the conclusion to Magnum Force. But the final confrontation itself is oddly botched and lacking in tension, with only the killer's very last moment staying in the mind.

As ever, Eastwood has used exceptional craftspeople to bring the material to the screen. Brian Helgeland's screenplay is terse, funny and well structured and, in my opinion, more enjoyable than the novel although that's certainly a minority view. Clint's regular editor, Joel Cox, and production designer, the great Henry Bumstead (who worked with a whole array of Hollywood greats) are on top form - there's a sensationally well edited nightmare scene - and although his ace DP Jack N.Green appears to have been replaced by Tom Stern, the film looks gorgeous with a final sunset to die for. The only major disappointment is Lennie Niehaus, whose usual jazz inflected work has been abandoned for some rather embarrassing salsa lounge music that is best ignored. Overall, despite its flaws, Blood Work is a well crafted piece of entertainment that deserved to be more successful than it was.

The Disc

Warner Brothers have given Blood Work one of their mini-special editions. Given that Eastwood doesn't appear to do commentaries and that the film wasn't a sufficient success to warrant the full two disc treatment, it's not all that bad and the lower than usual price reflects the lack of extra materials.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It's a really superb transfer, almost reference quality, with beautifully rich colours, razor sharp detail and superb contrast, rendering the blacks suitably deep and making the scenes shot in low lighting clear and distinct. There is a small amount of artifacting during the climactic scene in the tanker but that is the only serious flaw.

The soundtrack is less impressive but still very pleasing. It's not the most eventful 5.1 track I've ever heard but there is usually something going on in the surrounds, notably the sound effects and some of the music score. The dialogue is distinct and generally directional between the front channels. The bass is rarely used but there are one or two nice moments which will surprise you. Given the type of film being presented, this track is more than acceptable.

The extras are not so impressive. We get two short featurettes; "The Making of Blood Work" and "A Conversation in Spanish". The first is a standard 18 minute PR piece with an excessive number of clips from the film and very brief behind the scenes material and interviews with the main cast members. There are spoilers for the plot contained in this feature. The second is a 14 minute extended interview with De Jesus and Rodriguez which is, for the most part, conducted in Spanish. Clint Eastwood pops up towards the end and does say a few sentences in Spanish although it's hardly a 'conversation in Spanish' between the three of them as the back of the box suggests. Both of these featurettes contain English subtitles.

Also present on the disc is a cast and crew list with some brief filmographies and two trailers; the original teaser, which is quite elegant, and the full theatrical trailer, which is overlong and reveals too much about the plot. There are 32 chapter stops and a range of subtitles.

Blood Work isn't one of Clint Eastwood's great movies and compared to one of the best serial killer films, such as Seven, it's not in the same league. But it's very well made and engrossing and is certainly worth a look - especially considering that it received a ludicrously limited theatrical release in the UK late last year. The disc offers a superb presentation of the film and is recommended, despite the paucity of extra features.

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