Heart to Heart

Eastwood plays a detective with a bad ticker looking for the man who murdered his donor

Blood Work, Clint Eastwood's 23rd film as director, is another crime thriller in the mode of, but better than, True Crime (1998) and Absolute Power (1996), two of his last three films. More than these, however, it resembles In the Line of Fire (1993), the Eastwood vehicle directed by Wolfgang Petersen.

Hero Terry McCaleb is another variation on a character that Eastwood has repeatedly played over the years -- the brilliant but deeply flawed lawman. In this incarnation, he's a veteran FBI profiler, absolutely sure of himself and enough of a publicity magnet that many of the cops he works with regard him as an arrogant grandstander . . . which may indeed be the case.

How brilliant is he? At times, a little unbelievably so. During the film's opening scenes, he manages to spot a perp that all the other cops in the crowd have somehow missed. He chases after the guy -- with, again somewhat unbelievably, none of the LAPD officers apparently even bothering to follow -- and almost gets him, when he runs into an adversary far more deadly: his own heart.

No one ever says exactly how old McCaleb is, but Clint himself is 72 (presumably 71 when this was shot), and no matter how great the star looks, it's reasonable to assume that McCaleb is somewhere in that ballpark. So it shouldn't be all that big a surprise when the strenuous chase induces a major coronary.

We jump to two years later, 60 days after McCaleb has received a heart transplant. He is still recuperating and doing his best to take it easy, on orders from his doctor (Anjelica Huston). He is kicking back on his boat in what appears to be either Marina del Rey or Long Beach when his life and his convalescence are suddenly thrown into chaos.

He is approached by Graciella Rivers (Wanda De Jesús), who wants him to investigate the murder of her sister, Gloria. When he protests that he's retired and not fully over his surgery, she springs the zinger on him: It's Gloria's heart beating in his chest. How can he not help avenge a young woman's death that has given him a second life?

Since he still can't drive, he enlists the aid of Buddy (Jeff Daniels), a goofy, aging slacker who lives on the boat next door, and starts poking around, much to the aggravation of the already-hostile LAPD investigators (Paul Rodriguez and Dylan Walsh) assigned to the case.

Taken from a novel by currently hot L.A. detective writer Michael Connelly, Blood Work benefits from the strength of the original material. It has one of those stories where the many initially irritating coincidences and plot holes turn out not to be coincidences or plot holes at all.

Add to that the built-in extra layer of suspense -- is McCaleb's pursuit going to cause his heart transplant to fail? -- and you've got a pretty canny piece of construction.

Some of the plot elements recapitulate stuff from In the Line of Fire: The opening scenes set up a killer motivated partly by a personal obsession with the hero -- the same sort of psycho symbiosis that Eastwood and John Malkovich had in the earlier film. And both stories are powered by the hero's sense of guilt.

It's impossible to say that Blood Work is up to the standard of In the Line of Fire, which was arguably the best crime thriller Eastwood has starred in since his days working under Don Siegel. It is flawed by some plot points being set up in an intrusive, heavy-handed way -- moments where evidence is so front and center that you immediately think, "Well, that's going to prove important later." Without giving too specific a hint, the most crucial of these will be instantly and painfully obvious to anyone who works with words long before McCaleb figures it out -- i.e., long before director Eastwood thinks the audience will catch on.

And the issue of McCaleb putting his heart in jeopardy -- well, for all the times we see him rub his chest and start to show symptoms of trouble, we stop worrying after seeing too many scenes where he does stuff that would almost cause a heart attack in a healthy man 20 years younger -- diving away from an oncoming car, running, fighting, and otherwise abusing his credibility.

For all this, the film still delivers the goods, in part because of Eastwood's iconic presence and in part because of Daniels's scene-stealing work in what could have been a hokey role. Sadly, the same cannot be said about Rodriguez, who is so awful that it would be remiss not to mention it.

 
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