“Blood Work” is a late-1940s Warner Bros. murder melodrama updated with a heart transplant. Clint Eastwood returns to the crime beat one more time with rudimentary potboiler material that enables him to further his ongoing screen inquiry into the hardships as well as the humor of the aging process for an iconic action hero. The 72-year-old star, who is centerscreen throughout, makes this rather far-fetched yarn go down much more easily than it otherwise might have, but talky affair can’t expect a much better B.O. fate than his last effort in this genre, “True Crime.”
In nearly every film he’s made at least since “In the Line of Fire,” Eastwood, far from ignoring his own advancing years a la Woody Allen, has incorporated some sort of commentary on getting old into his characterization. Enjoying the obvious benefit of being in excellent shape, Eastwood continues to be able to function credibly in genre formats with only slight modifications to accommodate his characters’ encroaching maturity.
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Increasingly, the approach has best succeeded with a generous serving of self-deprecating comedy, as in his last picture, “Space Cowboys,” in sheer dollars Eastwood’s biggest grosser ever. In “Blood Work,” the premise hinges upon the events of the opening scene, in which vet Southern California FBI agent Terry McCaleb (Eastwood) chases a murder suspect for blocks through dark city streets until he collapses with a heart seizure from the exertion.
Two years and a transplant later, the retired Terry is hewing obediently to the health edicts of his cardiologist (Anjelica Huston), and living quietly on his boat in the Long Beach marina. Thinking he’s through with law enforcement, he’s shortly pulled back in when a purposeful Latina, Graciela Rivers (Wanda De Jesus), turns up to inform him that he’s alive today only because of her sister Gloria, a murder victim whose heart went to Terry.
Given additional motivation by his liking for Gloria’s angelic 10-year-old son Raymond (Mason Lucero), whom Graciela now looks after, Terry hits the pavement once again to put his legendary profiling skills to the test in the unsolved case. At every turn, he runs into resistance: The local cops (Paul Rodriguez, Dylan Walsh) don’t want to help the big shot for fear he’ll show them up, former FBI colleague Jaye Winston (a nicely understated Tina Lifford) slips him confidential info due to fond romantic memories, and his doctor throws him out when he blatantly disregards her warnings.
Terry’s only concession to his physical limitations is agreeing not to drive or ride in a car with a passenger-side airbag, which leads him to recruit his boat bum and all-purpose doofus neighbor Buddy Noone (Jeff Daniels) to chauffeur him around SoCal in his gas-guzzling heap.
Terry has little to go on other than minimally revelatory surveillance videos of Gloria’s murder as well as that of an ATM customer he believes was killed by the same person. The wily old agent mistakenly fingers one imagined perpetrator before an unlikely combination of deductions involving rare blood types, organ donations, minor physical clues and nutty personal motives enables Terry to identify the culprit, paving the way for a nocturnal showdown aboard a rusty fishing trawler.
While rattling off pages of dialogue from Brian Helgeland’s verbose screenplay, based on Michael Connelly’s 1998 novel, Eastwood incorporates welcome levity and low-key sexuality into his characterization. The excitement of being back in the hunt literally raises Terry’s temperature, and he is prone to frequent touching of his chest, as he ponders the reality and the import of having received the gift of continued life from a woman he now knows all about.
In addition to the evident attraction between Terry and Jaye, an amorous fire slowly ignites between Terry and Graciela stemming from their shared intimate link to Gloria, their determination to learn why she died and by whose hand.
Stylistically, “Blood Work” is straightforward, its dedication to narrative, however improbable, and character above trendy flourishes and mannerisms pleasingly reminiscent of the cinema of decades past. Lensing by first-time cinematographer Tom Stern, who has worked as chief lighting technician on Eastwood’s films for a decade and as gaffer for eight years before that, is notably crisp, as is Joel Cox’s editing; running time is tight for an Eastwood film. Lennie Niehaus’ score is unobtrusively supportive when required, attractively jazzy when given some breathing room.