Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Blood Work (2002)

Director: Clint Eastwood                                  Writer: Brian Helgeland
Film Score: Lennie Niehaus                            Cinematography: Tom Stern
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Daniels, Wanda De Jesus and Paul Rodriguez

Michael Connelly has written some nice mysteries. Blood Work, which was produced and directed by Clint Eastwood is his first feature. The second was The Lincoln Lawyer with Matthew McConaughey almost a decade later. Unlike the later film, the first was a box office dud, which is unfortunate. In terms of his post-Dirty Harry work, this film is what I consider Eastwood’s middle period, that is, the films Eastwood made before he became primarily a director, everything from Unforgiven on. I say that because, of the fifteen films he has directed since 2000, he has only starred in four. This film, while using Connelly’s story, takes considerable liberties and that is due to screenwriter Brian Helgeland, a writer with an impressive Hollywood resume. But with the exception of the ending, most of the changes are terrific, adding lots of humor and making the story work on the screen. I remember once seeing an interview with, I believe a director, who said that Eastwood doesn’t know how to use music, and ever since hearing that I have to agree. Lennie Niehaus, one of the director’s longtime collaborators, is a non-entity in the film and with the exception of the opening title sequence the music might as well not even be there. Ultimately it’s easy to see why the film stiffed--to use music industry parlance--but I would still argue that it’s a good film. It has a wonderfully intricate and surprising plot that, while not as rewarding on repeat viewings, still has a lot to enjoy beyond the surprises.

The film begins like a vintage Dirty Harry movie with Lennie Niehaus’s jazz score behind a helicopter filming a crime scene at night. FBI agent Clint Eastwood shows up and gets a guided tour of a house of horrors, three people dead, with homicide detective Paul Rodriguez doing a comedy commentary because he’s angry that Eastwood gets all the credit on the cases. But he should because the “Code Killer” has written his name in the victims’ blood, with a series of nine digits below. The killer, it turns out, is actually at the crime scene in the crowd. Knowing how old Eastwood is, and that he’ll chase him, it seems an easy taunt and, sure enough, Eastwood takes the bait. But it all ends with Eastwood on the pavement having a heart attack on one side of a chain link fence, and the killer on the other. Fast forward two years later and cardiologist Angelica Huston gives Eastwood the good news: his heart transplant has been successful. Back at his boat, where he lives, he says hi to neighbor Jeff Daniels, and finds Wanda De Jesus waiting for him. It turns out the heart that saved him belonged to her sister and she wants him to look into her murder. Of course Rodriguez gives him nothing but grief, especially since he doesn’t have a private detective’s license. But they let him look at the tape of the murder, during a robbery of a convenience store. Then he asks if there were others and gets shown the door. After a visit with Tina Lifford, an old friend from the sheriff’s department, he gets a copy of the murder book that the LAPD gave to her. It turns out the killer did the same thing to a guy at an ATM.

Eastwood gets trust-fund bum Jeff Daniels to drive him around on his investigation, but his temperature goes up and Huston quits as his doctor. It turns out it’s the dead woman’s son who comes up with the answer to the code killer’s numbers, but an even more shocking revelation comes when he learns who the woman’s killer was. Eastwood has done a terrific job of choosing projects to star in since 2000. He typically finds roles in which there is something wrong physically with the character so that he can make his age work for him, and this is no exception. I’ve never liked Jeff Daniels, ever since I first hated him in Terms of Endearment, but even I have to admit that he’s the perfect goofy, deadbeat partner in crime for Eastwood. Paul Rodriguez, on the other hand, is an absolute delight, delivering punch line after punch line with nothing but hatred in his heart for the camera-hogging FBI man, and Tina Lifford absolutely evokes the female Blaxploitation stars of the 70s in the best possible way. Wanda De Jesus is solid, but nothing out of the ordinary, and Rick Hoffman has a nice turn as a disgruntled witness to the first shooting. If there’s a downside to the film it’s the ending, which simply tries way too hard. It’s convoluted and over the top in a way that wants to be Die Hard and just doesn’t have the right cast to pull it off. But it’s hard not to like this film, and Blood Work continues to be an Eastwood gem--in the rough, admittedly--but precious nevertheless.

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