Terry McCaleb (Clint Eastwood), a hard-bitten FBI profiler/investigator who is reknowned for his crime solving abilities suffers a heart attack during a chase after a serial killer who's been taunting him. A heart transplant two years later keeps him alive for a forced retirement aboard his yacht. But his skills are widely known and he's been turning down every plea for his services. He means to stay retired -- his life depends on it. So, what would it take to get him to take a case? "Nothing", he would have told you before Graciella Rivers (Wanda De Jesus) stepped aboard his craft. And just as she's about to leave at his request, she gently brushes her hand over his chest, over his heart, and informs him that it used to beat in the chest of her sister. Her murdered sister. McCaleb owes her. Blood work.
There's nothing like a great conceit in literary fiction and this one comes from the pen of mystery writer Michael Connelly. If there's any novelist who can add new wrinkles to the detective yarn, it's him. Question is, does Eastwood do as much for the detective movie?
Rivers' sister was murdered in an apparently unmotivated act during a convenience store robbery, but the senselessness of it, and the appearance of a "good samaritan" calling 911 and showing up on the tape administering first aid sets some questions off in McCaleb's mind. Could there possibly be a link? The timing of the events are strange, if not contradictory and, as McCaleb puts his analytic mind to work while enduring his heart-weakened condition, the motivations of a killer are slowly revealed to him. Perhaps too slowly.
There's no denying Eastwood his due: he is tuned in to good writing and recognizes a vehicle for his strengths as an actor when he finds one. But, then, the Eastwood machine takes over. It's not that he doesn't respect the written word. Even when he's changing key elements of the book he observes the essential threads. You do, after all, have to compress the story to fit a feature length movie.
But there are the more unfortunate Eastwood trademarks: stereotypical characters and casting: Paul Rodriguez as a bombastic Detective Ronaldo Arrango whose level of comedic hysteria is exceeded only by his barely successful attempt to act; bargain basement casting: you won't find anyone here who commands a tenth of an Eastwood payday; sloppy lighting that comes from the kind of underscheduling his low-budget genes dictate. After all, Eastwood's company, Malpaso Productions, has been going on for a very long time. He's accomplished that, in large part, the same way other low-budgeteers have done it, by doing things on the cheap. Not giving his cinematographer enough time to light a scene adequately is a long standing hallmark of the typical Eastwood film. To him, shadows are beautiful -- you get more setups in a production day by not lighting the whole set. The unfortunate result is that there are too many times you hear 'em but barely see 'em.
The big guy is tuned in to jazz music and good writing. Too bad he's so willing to trade visual excellence for the bottom line. It's an opportunity missed, garroted on the wire of compromise.
He also continues to cast himself as a romantic lead despite his very visible 72 years. It may be true that in real life a big movie star will remain attractive to younger women, but among the characters in a movie this has become increasingly embarrassing. He retains his male charisma but the years have chiselled away the physical energy and, with it, the romantic chemistry. At least in this movie the romantic development is brief and reserved for the very end.
And, in the end, the movie will work for inveterate Eastwood fans. Those who recognize that he's done some very good work but often goes amiss, probably the same folks who wonder why this mystery, as presented here, took so long to solve, won't put this at the top of their "to see" list. For that audience, I implore you to pick up the novel, or any novel by Michael Connelly, who's getting a bad rap here. But, then, that's the price of selling one's gem of a book for big, Hollywood money.