In retrospect, just as it seemed when it came out in 2002, it’s nearly impossible to make Clint Eastwood’s Blood Work stand out among the director’s hallowed, and not-so-hallowed, achievements. This adaptation of Michael Connelly’s 1998 novel, which saw the debut of retired F.B.I. man Terry McCaleb, is resolutely modest in every particular, nearly to the point of courting dismissal. Eastwood skeptics were only happy to comply, while subscribers to the Eastwood-as-auteur school of thought wondered aloud, “Why?”
One possible answer, one that’s allowed many of Eastwood’s hardcore supporters, myself included, to sleep nights, is that the Dirty Harry icon can do whatever he darn well pleases, from “low-brow” genre fiction to “high-brow” Oscar bait, and a few weird detours for good measure. But there’s more to this answer than pure defensiveness. Without a single writing credit in 56 years as an actor, and 41 as a director, Eastwood is, by now, well-known for his impulse to take up with whatever property interests him, regardless of whether or not the elements that interest him in any helpful way (for tea-leaves readers such as myself) relate to his body of work at large, and to transcribe the property, with very little fuss, onto the screen. The writers he works with come and go, while other departments (camera, sound, music, editing) change very little from one year to the next. This isn’t to say, glibly, “He does whatever he wants,” so much as to observe that he very much wants to explore certain themes, moods, textures, and so on, and that film is the medium that gets the job done. His elusiveness as an artist, which critics and journalists often, quixotically, try to force-fit with his legendary image as Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name,” or “Dirty Harry,” is only part of the equation.
As a pure adaptation, a no-fuss transcription of an acceptable specimen of the kind of paperback that pays the electric bill for airport bookstores everywhere, Blood Work is passable at best. Eastwood and his team hit their marks, as those marks were fixed by Connelly, with dutiful obedience; there can be no doubt that hack extraordinaire Brian Helgeland was the ideal scribe to adapt the material for Eastwood. Sure, it’s a little hard to accept—spoilers ahoy!—Jeff Daniels as a serial killer with a quasi-homoerotic fixation to Eastwood’s retired G-man McCaleb, but that’s part of Connelly’s rug-pull, and if you’ve seen Blood Work before, Daniels’s faux-dopey Buddy Noone seems faintly creepy from the first minute, so there’s that. Ultimately, it’s a respectful adaptation of Connelly’s recipe, itself none too original: a derivative serial killer mystery, a dash of local color, and Bob’s your uncle.
None of which seems to be the stuff that represents Eastwood’s beating heart, if you’ll forgive the pun. While the murder-mystery/serial-killer material is treated with an all-business tone, what seems special to Eastwood is largely elsewhere. You can see it in McCaleb’s nervous habit of fingering his cardiac scar (the film contributes to his ongoing meditation of the aging, decaying, living body), or the “blood work” procedure his doctor obliges him to undergo, which is more horrifying than anything on Buddy’s trail of bodies (try to un-burn that retracting arterial cable from your retinal wall, all suggestion and performance), or his unforced affection for L.A. minorities—cops and civilians alike—that’s touchingly naïve in a way that only a classically conservative artist like Eastwood (a self-described libertarian) could pull off without seeming cloddish or phony.
Granted, Eastwood is as guilty as anybody of the occasional strain-for-effect, which in this case is Paul Rodriguez’s resentful Detective Arrango, whose half-hearted verbal abuse rattles around the movie like a pebble in a tin can. As the movie opens, McCaleb tells Arrango that when a homicide detective starts making jokes about bodies, he’s been at it too long; it’s a line that doesn’t go anywhere, but could have, and might have substantiated the boilerplate thriller material. Once forgiven, there’s plenty to like about Blood Work, which plays like one of Eastwood’s retirement fantasies, or, from another angle, is a self-portrait of a old pro who can do as he pleases, but still likes to keep his hand in the game, if that’s all right with you.
Tom Stern, who'd worked with Clint Eastwood for 20 years, starting as a gaffer for Honkytonk Man, makes his cinematographer debut with Blood Work, and his Los Angeles photography is crisp, supple, and largely uninflected. Warner Home Video's 1080p transfer of Blood Work is crisp and clean. The DTS-HD 5.1 track probably won't shatter your windows, but it's solid and resonant too.
Besides the obligatory trailers, there are two talking-head featurettes, both in SD. One is a rough assemblage of behind-the-scenes footage, and the other is misleadingly titled "A Conversation in Spanish with Clint Eastwood, Wanda de Jesus, and Paul Rodriguez"—misleading because Clint doesn't habla Español, only indicates that he understands it when Rodriguez and de Jesus are speaking. There, I just saved you seven minutes.
Eastwood's defiantly modest 2002 thriller was about a million miles away from Oscar material, but Warner's high-definition transfer is praiseworthy in and of itself.