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By Pete Vonder Haar | June 3, 2007

Everybody loves a serial killer.

Wait, no they don’t. That is, no one likes real-life serial killers. They’re not very attractive (Ted Bundy notwithstanding), generally on the socially awkward side, and have that annoying habit of murdering people. Sympathetic portraits of folks like John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer are unlikely to come from Hollywood, not only because of the hue and cry that would be raised by the victims’ families but, frankly, because the crimes they committed are real, which kind of makes it difficult to laugh them off after leaving the theater.

But we do enjoy our made-up murderers. “Silence of the Lambs” didn’t gross $130 million and spawn two sequels and a prequel because of America’s love affair with Ted Levine, but rather thanks to Anthony Hopkins’ seductively malevolent performance. And even Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter is a pretty tame customer compared to subsequent popular movie murderers like John Doe (“Se7en”) or Jigsaw (“Saw”).

Bruce A. Evans, the writer/director of “Mr. Brooks” (whose previous scripts include “Starman” and “Jungle 2 Jungle”), and Kevin Costner are obviously hoping the titular Earl Brooks will join this storied pantheon. We first meet Brooks (Costner) as he’s accepting a Man-of-the-Year award from the Portland Chamber of Commerce. Bespectacled and something of a nerd, Brooks is nonetheless a successful CEO and family man, with a beautiful wife (Marg Helgenberger) and a daughter (Danielle Panabaker) in college.

He also has a murderous alter-ego named Marshall (William Hurt), who pops up at various intervals, mocking Earl’s intentions to give up the murdering lifestyle. Earl sticks to his guns, insisting the film’s opening murder (a couple fornicating in their apartment) will be his last. It’s too bad he was caught in the act by an amateur photographer in a nearby building. Instead of sensibly calling the police, the shutterbug in question – who goes by the clever moniker “Mr. Smith” – goes to Earl’s office and threatens to turn his pictures over to the authorities unless Earl takes him along on his next “excursion.” Now the respectable Mr. Brooks faces a date with the needle unless he placates this wannabe Son of Sam. To top it off, Portland detective Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore) is determined to find the “Thumbprint Killer,” as Earl has been christened, and his daughter is exhibiting some…disquieting behavior.

Costner is one of those actors – like Tom Hanks – that I doubted would ever play a bad guy (again). And while he’s eminently believable portraying a tightly wound yuppie prig, he’s not quite as convincing as the cold and calculating killer, which explains the need for Marshall. Costner’s rapport with Hurt is the best part of the movie, and one can easily forget this is an insane person talking to his psychotic dual personality and instead see their banter as something between two old, dear friends. The early scenes where Marshall first cajoles then commiserates with Earl are very entertaining, and had Evans stuck with the two of them, “Mr. Brooks” might have been a great film.

But for that to happen, he’d have to ditch the two cinderblocks dragging this movie down: Moore and Cook. It turns out Detective Atwood comes from a lot of money, which makes Marshall uneasy, because a rich person choosing to be a cop means she really hates crime, or something. Of course it could be the only way to explain how someone on a cop’s salary could afford all that plastic surgery (and of course we can’t get through a mere two hours without some saucy shots of Atwood in her bathing suit). The subplots involving her character (her messy divorce and an escaped killer she helped bring down) are supposed to provide a link to Earl, but all they do is needlessly bloat the production. She also participates in what might be the most staggeringly unrealistic gunfight caught on film since “The A-Team” was cancelled.

And then there’s Cook. Mr. Smith is hardly a character that requires a lot of depth, representing as he does a bankrupt generation nurtured on televised murders and violent video games. It’s hard to blame the actor in this situation, however. As written, Smith is little more than an insufferable, motor-mouthed douchebag that the audience will be begging for someone, anyone, to kill.

In short, it’s the role Cook was born to play.

“Mr. Brooks” starts off promising, and it’s refreshing to see a movie about a serial killer that doesn’t rely on disembowelments to cover up its plot holes, but the waters soon become muddied by subplot upon subplot. What this movie needed was a leaner narrative focusing on Earl and Marshall while keeping Moore’s character in the background. What we end up with is a goofy and occasionally enjoyable mix of horror, comedy, and action that can’t entirely shed its excess narrative flab.

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