by Jack Sommersby
This pathetic, lazy, downright incompetent cinematic endeavor is a shambles from start to finish. The novel it is based upon is quite entertaining; the film adaptation, however, is as enjoyable as watching Roseanne Barr do a striptease.Three years ago, actor/producer/director Clint Eastwood scored with the mammothly entertaining, crackerjack entertainment True Crime, a beat-the-clock crime yarn with its star excellently playing a womanizing, self-destructive Oakland reporter trying to prove the innocence of a death-row inmate on the eve of his scheduled execution. Sure, the story line was familiar, but the screenplay featured a gallery of wonderfully colorful characters and witty adult dialogue, and the grand finale -- with Eastwood racing to get a material witness to an influential friend of the governor's before the inmate was neutralized -- made for admittedly white-knuckle stuff. Eastwood revitalized the contrivances with energy, flair, and muscular direction, proving that not everything in a film need not be original so long as it's delivered with a knowingness that audiences are keen to its familiarity but still willing to revel in it if presented right. Unfortunately, the same close-minded critics who overpraised a conventional-minded piece of art-house tripe like In the Bedroom hammered away at the conventionalities of True Crime, and the film's infinite pleasures went virtually unheralded. A year later, critics were much kinder to Eastwood's box-office hit Space Cowboys, a lackluster "geriatrics-in-space" cinematic endeavor that lacked all the wit and panache of its predecessor. Now, two years later, comes Eastwood's latest, the crime thriller Blood Work. It is jaw-droppingly awful.
"A Shockingly Bad Thriller From Clint Eastwood"
With material this promising, how could the filmmakers have missed? Adapted from the entertaining novel by Michael Connelly, the story involves the exploits of FBI profiler Terrell "Terry" McCaleb as he tracks down a serial murderer in Los Angeles known as the "Code Killer", who taunts his pursuer with messages scrawled in blood at every crime scene. When McCaleb tries to apprehend him in a foot chase, he suffers a heart attack -- to the apparent disappointment of the killer, who wants to keep their "game" together alive. Two years later, and sixty days after receiving a heart transplant, McCaleb, retired and living a quiet existence on his houseboat, is propelled back into action by Graciella Rivers, the sister of a slain woman whose heart, it's revealed, is beating inside McCaleb. Graciella wants McCaleb to look into the case, and he discovers that the killer might just be the very same one he pursued before. Soon, he's not only trying to ferret out the killer with sparse clues, but clashing with two antagonistic L.A. detectives and doing his damndest not to physically relapse while doing so. The novel made for great fun, what with its keen observant eye for detail and enough tantalizing plot turns to keep the tension percolating. And the character base was chock-full of goodies, as well -- which included Buddy Lockridge, McCaleb's middle-aged slacker of a next-door neighbor who became his chauffeur and eager partner. Put together, the novel was a nifty (if not great) read; the screenplay adaptation, however, by Brian Helgeland, is an ungodly mess.
I think it's abundantly clear now that Helgeland was definitely the lesser of the Oscar-winning screenwriting duo of 1998's masterpiece L.A. Confidential, which was also an adaptation of a novel (by the renowned L.A. writer James Ellroy). Director Curtis Hanson was the other co-writer, and based on his past winning screenplay adaptations, The Silent Partner and The Bedroom Window, he's the Real McCoy, with Helgeland's past work -- including numerous dogs like 976-Evil, The Postman, Payback, and A Knight's Tale -- indicative of an untalented hack who simply got lucky by drafting behind Hanson's panache. The writing here is shoddy in both construction and character. Not only has Helgeland jettisoned a good deal of the subplots which lent credence to the story (the know-how of obtaining confidential medical records; inner-police workings), changed the ingenious identity of the killer (and not for the better -- you can deduct his identity twenty minutes in), but he's even managed to screw up something so seemingly foolproof: an ailing protagonist who needs daily medications and naps and is deprived of a driver's license going up against a ruthless killer while never sure if he's going to keel over in the process. Instead of fusing character with incident, with each building upon the other for the better good of narrative cohesion, Helgeland just relies on the tailends of each to grab our attention in the most trivial ways. No story facet is satisfyingly followed through upon, nothing that's introduced is given the opportunity to build, and the film as a whole comes off less like a cunningly constructed piece of crime fiction, and more like a crummy hodgepodge of half-realized bits. (There's even a drawn-out joke involving cops and doughnuts that is -- for lack of a better descriptive -- incredibly stale.)
In the botched 1986 adaptation of Lawrence Block's brilliant detective yarn Eight Million Ways to Die, its main character's horrific bout with alcoholism was more or less a mere footnote in the film, rendering his psychological plight as a moot point -- and rendering him, in turn, as just another Hollywood supersleuth with a gun. In Blood Work, this similar disintegration of character is on dire display yet again. At the age of seventy-two, Clint Eastwood certainly looks appropriately beat-out, and for a little while we accept his willingness to recede into the interior of the part -- he makes the utterance of sentences seem like a tired excursion -- but soon McCaleb is partaking in actions only to be found plausible in Movie Land. After spending half a day being driven around and interviewing people, he's already winded and ghastly pale, eliciting rebuke from his concerned cardiologist (Angelica Huston). From this, we can get a succinct reading on the fragility of his physical stake. But soon thereafter McCaleb is doing much more strenuous things, and his condition comes off as more bogus after (and during) each happenstance. In the most ludicrous sequence, he removes a shotgun from a car trunk, marches over to a car which he suspects is being driven by the killer, unloads about three rounds (with the stock of the weapon braced up against his chest!), chases after it while still firing, and then dives out of the way of its incoming path at the last second with the agility of an aerobics instructor.
Even if you remove the implausible as a detracting factor, Blood Work is still abysmal in its failed attempt to simply engage and grip the audience on a scene-by-scene basis, and a good deal of the blame falls squarely on Eastwood's shoulders. As I remarked to a fellow critic last week, Eastwood's direction is best described as being "unfussy but uncommonly solid" in that it expertly manipulates an audience on a solid responsive level yet never calls attention to itself with "Look, Ma -- I'm directing!" camerawork distracting you from the story and making you aware of the film as such. This is Eastwood's first-directed thriller since his fine 1971 debut, Play Misty for Me, and it's quite clear that his relaxed direction is inadequate to effectively serve up the essential rudiments that all good thrillers need -- mainly, sustained tension. There's absolutely no immediacy nor drive to the story, and it's not just due to the gaps in the story but to the numerous badly shaped scenes I can't believe Eastwood ascribed his name to. He's unable to find the dramatic point in a simple two-character dialogue exchange, provide the shading of emotional balance that might make them play, and fails to juxtapose them in an even halfway-fluid storytelling rhythm. The editing is shockingly bad, with the timing always seeming to be off a good two to three seconds, which is more than a bit of a surprise considering that the man responsible, Joel Cox, a longtime Eastwood collaborator and Oscar-winner for Unforgiven, is credited. And this extends to the action as well as conversational scenes. In that pivotal chase scene at the beginning, the matching of the shots is awkward, resulting in a blurry sense of spatial cohesion and hasn't so much as a shred of excitement to it. But the irrefutable nadir undoubtedly occurs during the final confrontation onboard an abandoned boat at night. The scene should make for nerve-jangling fun, but the pacing is so stalled-out and glacial, and Eastwood's staging so stodgy, it plays out with the nerve-frying tension of a head-butting contest between two drunken Aggies.
Why is Blood Work so stupefyingly rotten? As he's proved numerous times before, Eastwood is not an incompetent director, but an astute and intelligent one. Yet the film gives the impression of having been rushed through production and even more so during the editing process, leaving very little time for Eastwood to get a handle on what wasn't working and why. I strongly doubt the film could have been remedied totally in the editing room, but at least maybe half of the unplayable scenes on display could have been tweaked and trimmed up a bit so they glided by rather than clunked along. There's not a single good moment to be had in Blood Work. Not a pleasurable scare or jolt, not a semi-effective emotional payoff, and, excepting Jeff Daniels' terrific supporting work, not even an above-average performance (Eastwood's own is sodden). And the central psychological parallel between McCaleb and the killer is tired and trite -- so much so that it makes the James Spader/Keanu Reeves match-up in the ludicrous The Watcher come off as more substantial by comparison. The film is boring, incompetent, absurd, downright amateurish most of the time, and stands as the biggest disappointment of a big-budget Hollywood thriller since Michael Douglas toiled embarrassingly away in the endless banalities of last year's Don't Say a Word. But what's sad most of all is that, due to his ever-advancing age, Blood Work will likely mark Clint Eastwood's last starring foray in the action/thriller genre. Instead of seeing a great star go out like this, though, please re-watch his dandy match-up with John Malcovich in 1993's In the Line of Fire and (as flawed as it is) his facing up to doppelganger recognition with a sadistic sex killer in 1984's Tightrope.
Blood Work's Angelica Huston's late director father, John, served as the basis for the thinly disguised 1990 biopic White Hunter, Black Heart, which Eastwood both starred in and directed. It was a flop at North American box offices, but it's a magnificent film that has stood the test of time and remains one of the ten-best films of the last decade. See it.Eastwood's lame-duck "The Rookie" and "Space Cowboys" are more preferable to this.
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originally posted: 12/19/02 02:04:54