Clint Eastwood’S Last Psychological Thriller Is An Underrated Gem


While Unforgiven is often considered Clint Eastwood’s directorial magnum opus, his versatility when it comes to tackling broad and important themes and varied genre fare is evident in large supply. His spate of 70s westerns turned heads for their depth (The Outlaw Josey Wales) and at times mystic sensibilities (High Plains Drifter), and his thrillers have also regularly delivered with brute force impact.

Kicking off with 1971’s Play Misty for Me, a frightening chiller that oozed cool and perhaps served as the forerunner for films such as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, Eastwood has proven a dab hand at conducting police procedurals and murky psychological potboilers. However, the director’s underrated 2002 release Blood Work is a coolly compelling film that mystery-thriller aficionados ought to seek out.

What Is ‘Blood Work’ About?

Blood Work is a great little film to revisit. Sure, it may not break any substantial ground, but it’s absorbingly done, and directed with Eastwood’s trademark style —classical and unfussy. The late Lennie Niehaus, a regular collaborator, was on deck again to provide a typically jazzy score, and the support cast reveled in their roles (although one wishes the great Anjelica Huston had been given more screen time). It has a distinctly Californian look (much of the film takes place in and around Long Beach where McCaleb retires to houseboat life), and for retro-thriller enthusiasts with a deep-held affection for the punchy style of 90s and 2000s thriller cinema, Blood Work hits the spot with gusto.

It’s a role that sees Eastwood easing into his later years, not shying away from them. His Terry McCaleb, a recently retired FBI Agent, is a battle-hardened warrior not yet ready to exit the ring. Determined to insert himself into a puzzling, ongoing investigation, he puts his heart (literally) on the line to pinpoint the connection between a series of uncommonly brutal robberies, as it may have something to do with the person whose heart he received following a transplant.

Based on a book by renowned crime writer Michael Connelly, the material was always a good fit for Clint Eastwood’s slow-burn directorial style. The opening is electric, visually awash with shadows and the pulsating glow of police vehicle lights, as Eastwood’s McCaleb finds himself once again called out by a notorious madman dubbed the ‘code murderer’, upon entering a gruesome crime scene. Following a foot chase, McCaleb suffers a heart attack and officially retires from the Bureau before he can apprehend the probable perp.

He does manage to get off a few shots, however, the condition of the escapee remains uncertain. Despite retirement, unofficially, he is still very much an investigator. Nosing his way into crime scenes and regularly hitting up the local precinct (to the chagrin of cops played by Dylan Walsh and Paul Rodriguez) with possible leads and clues to boot, his closest ally is Detective Jaye Winston (Tina Lifford), whom he regularly consults.

How Does ‘Blood Work’ Compare to Clint Eastwood’s Other Movies?

Clint Eastwood treads familiar terrain in Blood Work. As the veteran lawman, he doesn’t really do anything too different, once again striking the balance between gruff gravitas and played-down sympathy. Where does McCaleb rank alongside some of the similar characters Eastwood’s portrayed? Fairly highly. He’s not invincible, but he’s wily and determined. More than 30 years after first playing the magnum-toting Dirty Harry Callahan and 25 after playing a similar renegade officer in the blistering The Gauntlet, Eastwood’s federal agent jumps to conclusions swiftly (although admittedly often the right ones), occasionally letting his guard down long enough for people to infiltrate his life with insidious intent. Yes, surprises abound in Blood Work.


In 1993, Eastwood played a Secret Service agent in the masterfully taut In the Line of Fire (perhaps Wolfgang Petersen’s finest film), and certain parallels can be drawn between that character and McCaleb. Both faced harrowing, deadly circumstances and each also feels indebted to someone. In McCaleb’s instance, it’s Wanda De Jesus’ Graciella Rivers, whose sister Gloria was tragically killed in an armed hold-up. McCaleb, bearing a rare blood type, was the recipient of Rivers’ sister’s heart as a result, and therein lies the basis for a uniquely compelling crime tale. A donated organ is the reason McCaleb is still breathing, still digging, and still on the hunt. And the donor was taken far too soon.

‘Blood Work’ Is a Captivating Late-Career Gem

There’s a lot to appreciate about Blood Work. The glimmer of long-gone tough guy roles remains, but it’s a mellower character for Eastwood to embody, and it works. The relaxed pacing is in keeping with the gradual manner in which the mystery unfolds. Traveling from waterside sunset to waterside sunset in an unhurried fashion, a little more plot is chipped away with each passing day, and it makes for a very easy watch.

There are exciting sequences galore too. The finale, set on a boat in the middle of the night and which must be close to the middle of the ocean, is great fun, if implausible. Furthermore, the tense, daylight confrontation between McCaleb and the suspect he believes to be the murderer will keep all attention firmly arrested. Some of the secondary characters are curious. Jeff Daniels as McCaleb’s knockabout ‘neighbor,’ for example, is an oddball one. He insists on being McCaleb’s sidekick/chauffeur of sorts and there are genuine ‘buddy cop’ moments as a result.

It’s intriguing re-watching Blood Work in the context of Eastwood’s career. It’s the actor/director’s final psychological thriller to date, with legal thriller Juror No.2 currently in the works. While it’s imperfect, it’s most certainly been overlooked in the years since its release. Hitting cinemas two years before Million Dollar Baby (which earned both Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank Oscars), and six years before Gran Torino, Blood Work has perhaps been overshadowed a little by these later films as it’s comparably lightweight. Nevertheless, as a solidly executed genre yarn, Blood Work more than hits the mark, and makes for a terrifically engaging, low-key winner of the era.