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Still Eastwood, after all these years 

At the age of 72, when most of his peers no doubt contemplate the sunset of their lives and professions, Clint Eastwood obviously retains both his creative intelligence and, perhaps more surprisingly, his on-screen appeal.

            One of America's most accomplished contemporary filmmakers, he has produced, written, directed, and starred in scores of motion pictures, and in his new movie, Blood Work, he accounts for everything but the screenplay. Over the years he has established a career that any highbrow European auteur would envy, and accumulated a body of work that should make the art house connoisseurs cough up their croissants. And, as Blood Work demonstrates, he hasn't lost a step.      In Blood Work, Eastwood once again plays a law enforcement professional --- he's always specialized in cops and cowboys --- only in keeping with his maturity, this time around he's less physically active as a retired FBI profiler named Terry McCaleb. As one signal of his age, however, and perhaps as an acknowledgment of the inevitable, while pursuing a suspected serial killer in the opening sequences, his character suffers a massive heart attack.

            That incident conditions all the subsequent action and meaning in the story, creating a most original and unusual connection --- the word his character constantly uses --- between the detective and his quarry.

            After his attack, McCaleb receives a heart transplant, which in effect motivates everything else in the movie. Recovering from the operation, gobbling pills by the handful to fight rejection, and consumed by guilt because a child in his hospital ward still awaits a new heart, McCaleb learns the common, difficult lesson of serious illness, the need to reconstruct a new life --- in his case, maintaining the boat he lives on and avoiding the excitement and stress of his former profession --- around the ineluctable fact of his condition.

            A young woman named Graciela Rivera (Wanda De Jesús) interrupts that process, however, when she asks him to investigate the murder of her sister, who happens to be the donor of his new heart (they shared the same rare blood type). Despite his precarious health, McCaleb obviously cannot turn down a request that in some way represents a gesture of gratitude, a repayment, even some alleviation of his guilt.

            The murder investigation follows a somewhat offbeat variation on the usual pattern of detective fiction. Although the Los Angeles detectives angrily refuse to cooperate with his strictly amateur and mostly illegal inquiry into what they regard as an act of random brutality, a friend in the sheriff's office department offers at least a modicum of help, but he must conduct most of his work on his own.

            Because of his health, moreover, he also must enlist the aid of a goofy friend, a loafer named Buddy (Jeff Daniels), who lives on a boat near McCaleb's, to chauffeur him around and, as Buddy at least sees it, to serve as his sidekick. That partnership leads to a number of unexpected complications, both comic and violent.

            Perhaps because it originated as a detective novel, Blood Work employs a stronger, more coherent plot than most cinematic mysteries, which tend to lose their logic in exaggerated action and inattention to detail. The movie plays entirely fair with the audience, showing all the clues that the protagonist discovers, maintaining his point of view, and allowing the viewer to understand the process of gradual discovery that makes a puzzle acceptable.

            Generally, the notion of depending upon a final revelation to explain meaning works much better in fiction than in film, but in Blood Work, the script and the direction maintain a high level of interest throughout. And the solution of the mysteries creates additional meanings, a rare confluence of intellectual satisfaction and emotional significance.

            The movie also explores the familiar connection between the detective and the criminal, which again accumulates richer complexities than in most examples of the form. The murderer McCaleb initially chased, a serial killer who taunts the profiler with a cryptic code, resurfaces in the new investigation, establishing what may be a unique nexus of plot and meaning, linking all the victims (along with himself) to McCaleb, and in effect deepening the detective's own guilt.

            Even with some relatively predictable melodrama at the end, the crimes, the motivation, the investigation, the puzzle, and the solution combine in one of the most unusual mystery stories in contemporary film, suggesting the intelligence of the writing and direction.

            Clint Eastwood may no longer quite resemble his earlier incarnations as Rowdy Yates or The Man With No Name or Dirty Harry, but he can still narrow his eyes thoughtfully as if he were scanning the distant horizon for danger, or squinting through gun sights at an enemy with absolute credibility.

            Although his husky voice here suits the condition of a man in precarious health recovering from a serious surgical procedure, he also must be one of the few movie actors his age who can take off his shirt without embarrassment. As he demonstrated with his character in Unforgiven, he knows how to use his age, his gray hair, and his weathered, rugged good looks to great advantage. He still possesses enormous physical presence, he can still dominate a scene simply by appearing in it --- the camera still loves him and so, I think, do we.

Blood Work, starring Clint Eastwood, Jeff Daniels, Wanda De Jesús, Tina Lifford, Paul Rodriguez, Dylan Walsh, Anjelica Huston; screenplay by Brian Helgeland; produced and directed by Clint Eastwood. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

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