Blood Work

September, 2002, Mystery

Directed by:Clint Eastwood

Starring:Clint Eastwood, Jeff Daniels, Anjelica Huston, and Wanda De Jesus

How do you adapt a good film from a complex novel?  How often have you seen a movie after reading the book upon which it was based and been severely disappointed because the images on the screen didn't correspond to your conception of the characters, or because crucial points were left out of the plot in order to trim the action down to an intelligible narrative? Getting the gist of a story and an accurate "take" on the characters presents no small screenwriting feat.

In 1997, director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland turned fire-and -brimstone author James Ellroy's 1990 crime novel L.A. Confidential into a splendid film that earned Kim Basinger a richly deserved Oscar as Best Supporting Actress and brought Australian actors Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce to the attention of American audiences. Helgeland/Hanson proved you could take a very complex piece of detective fiction and translate it to the screen without losing the power and atmosphere of the original work. This summer, Helgeland has teamed with Clint Eastwood to adapt Blood Work a fascinating book by Michael Connelly, one of the most prolific and successful writers of crime fiction working today. Connelly's compelling detective thriller has been credibly brought to the screen by Helgeland and Eastwood, and while this effort falls short of Confidential's vibrant brilliance, it's a typically solid effort by Eastwood, who once again demonstrates his trifecta skills as leading man, producer and director.

Eastman plays Terry McCaleb, an aging F.B.I. agent specializing in the apprehension of serial killers, a plot device that permits lots of violent action without requiring copious amounts of psychological insight or exposition.  Modern audiences have come to accept, in an era of real life lunatics like Jerry Dahmer, Ted Bundy and the "Son of Sam", precisely the kind of inexplicable horror which expresses itself in the commission of acts that revolt, terrify and fascinate at one and the same time. But in McCaleb's case, his carrier ends in the middle of such a case, (which the film captures in its striking opening images) not because of a culprit, but because of the collapse of his own heart. The action then leaps forward a couple of years to follow McCaleb, now living in listless retirement on a boat in Long Beach Harbor, as he returns to police work under conditions which prove to be as tricky as his motivations, and despite his doctor's vigorous objections. For our ex-agent has a self-imposed debt to pay, and the audience is invited to discover why as Eastwood's character delves into a pair of complex but seemingly unrelated Los Angles murders.

Eastwood directs with the same terse, straightforward style that marks his screen persona; the camera works solidly while avoiding the artiness of so many current cinematic efforts, and the story line's often propelled by visual clues whose importance only emerges from subsequent dialogue. Furthermore, the director doesn't shy away from the complicated plot he inherited from the book; false leads abound here, connections appear relevant when they aren't, and the clues only become intelligible as McCaleb works his way through the ever-increasing body count. But such faithfulness to the clever premise of the original source also has its drawbacks; you have to pay full attention to every scene if you want to discover things at the same time McCaleb does, and that frequently causes the action to stall as members of the cast toss in the information necessary to propel the ailing hero to his next move. The hard driving propulsion of Confidentail's plot is missing here as well, partly because of the considerable differences between the two works, but also, I suspect, because of Eastwood's laconic directorial style.

As the central character, the producer/director has made three crucial casting choices; "himself", (as the Irish would put it), as the F.B.I. agent, Jeff Daniels as his next door neighbor, and Wanda de Jesus as the sister of one of the murder victims whose violent and apparently senseless death propels McCaleb's return to his chosen craft. As he has been doing for the last few years, Eastwood acts his age, (and his infirmities) here; he both looks and sounds like a man who ought to be heeding the advice his physician so compellingly provides. His voice, which sounds as though someone has taken a rasp to his vocal cords, heightens the impression of physical vulnerability while his hands constantly betray a concern for his continued capacity to carry out the physical demands of his increasingly desperate search for the truth behind the murders. And that now famous face, with its patented grimace presented on features that resemble the bark of an old cottonwood, quietly presents a stoic vulnerability that makes for real unspoken tension between what McCaleb wants to do and his capacity for doing it. He's a man with a mission, but it's one that may finish him before he's finished with it. Jeff Daniels does a splendid turn as McCaleb's vaguely mysterious neighbor, while de Jesus conveys instant credibility as the women who turns to McCaleb for help and then develops a completely plausible attraction to him, one based as much on the motivations of Eastman's character as his sculptured, beleaguered good looks.

A common weakness plagues the endings of so much good, exciting hard-boiled detective fiction; the often unbelievable plot resolution required from the dangerous circumstances the author creates at the story's climax-- how is the hero/heroine going to escape from this one? While the violent conclusion of L.A.Confidential handles that challenge with robust vigor, Helgeland's plot resolution here isn't nearly as credible, or as consistent with the action that precedes it, as was the book itself.  The film certainly provides a more interesting visual conclusion than the literary source from which it flows, but this denouement sadly contradicts the most appealing part of McCaleb's character. In an era of escalating film violence, when technical virtuosity so often trumps thoughtful character development, it's disappointing to see a director who's powerful enough to control his films as a true auteur pander to audience expectations.  Perhaps little more could be expected of the Hollywood star that made "Dirty Harry" a household name.

That quibble aside, Blood Work presents an intriguing premise, compelling performances and enough plot puzzles to keep fans of the genre thoroughly entertained for a couple of hours. And it's nice to see a film icon age with such a sure sense of self-knowledge and forceful charm.   


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