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May 30-June 5, 2007

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'Mr. Brooks'

Photo by Ben Glass © 2007 Element Funding, LLC
Call waiting: Demi Moore's detective tries to get a line on a mysterious killer in 'Mr. Brooks.'

Buttoned Down

Kevin Costner plays 'Mr. Brooks,' an unlikely killer with an evil alter ego

By Richard von Busack

THERE ARE more than a few movies around that suffer from Badly Integrated Subplot Syndrome, but the better than average Mr. Brooks represents a particularly fatal case of that malady. Kevin Costner's title protagonist is first heard, and then seen, mumbling the Serenity Prayer. His personal demon, Marshall (William Hurt)—a gum-chewing alter ego that only Brooks can see—requests him gently to cut the crap and do what he wants to do so badly. A glass of champagne waits for Brooks at his table—is it a forbidden drink that he craves? No. It's worse than that.

They sure know about recovery in the movie business. Mr. Brooks smartly suggests that a craving could strike during a moment of being honored. Being told that one is worthy is just another way of making the guilty temperament feel worse.

Brooks, a wealthy Portland resident, is fighting with Marshall at the banquet where he is receiving a man-of-the-year award by a local group of businessmen. Brooks' well-preserved wife (Marg Helgenberger) is there, too, and she, too, can't hear Marshall urging Brooks very persistently to fall off the wagon.

Marshall and Brooks know about a couple—tango dancers who practice in the window of a dance studio downtown— and after Brooks' wife falls asleep, the team could have a little fun putting the couple to death in the usual manner: shooting them, photographing them and signing the work with a bloody thumbprint.

During the killing, Brooks makes a mistake: the exhibitionist victims had the curtains open while they were making love. The man next door spots Brooks in midcrime and tracks him down. The observer, who calls himself "Mr. Smith" (Dane Cook), turns blackmailer. Smith makes an unusual request for payment: he wants to watch some more killings.

So far so good, but we cut to Tracy Atwood, the copper looking for "The Thumbprint Killer"; sadly, she is played by the demi-actress, Demi Moore. A loopy bit of writing—meant to demonstrate something, but what?—makes Atwood a millionaire who became a homicide detective. She bears a beef against men, since her ex, a restaurateur (Jason Lewis), is suing her for palimony. This is good casting: Lewis, a model turned actor, has the exact spoiled, irritatingly too-pretty face they used to carve on plaster mannequins at medium-scale men's boutiques. Atwood's divorce upsets her so much that her superior tries to take Atwood off the case because of emotional stress. The superior officer ought to take over anyway: she is played by Lindsay Crouse, who looks like she could capture every killer within a radius of 500 miles, without backup or weapons.

Mr. Brooks insists on an elegant front despite a lean budget. How lean? So lean that Palo Alto is played by a road sign and an aerial shot of some Oregon pines. The older audience will be less interested in the distasteful blood than the delicious suspense. But somewhere, someone must have realized that the younger audience wasn't getting its customary gore. Thus the matter of the unintegrated subplot: enter a subsidiary villain called the "Hangman" (Matt Schulze)—a steroid rager who likes to leave his victim's bodies dangling. The Hangman leaves Atwood a Fincherized corpse, then turns up with a gun and hustles the detective into a torture van. The separation between these two plots makes the violence look like a last-minute insert.

Of course, one could have swiped the plot of Red Dragon, with Brooks siccing the Hangman on the detective, while he carries out his own killings. As it stands, the characters just keep bumping into one another. Portland is not that big a town ... and yet. And in any fiendish-genius movie, the cop ought to be as crazy and implacable as the quarry. Moore just looks out at the audience as miffed as an undertipped waitress.

By contrast, as a team, Hurt and Costner exhibit rare chemistry. With such a pairing, Hurt is no longer the most bottled-up actor in the room. Costner, drabbed to the point where he would be the worst-dressed man at a convention of vocational-guidance counselors, comes across as tangy and covert. During his crimes, a few interested bones are hurled to the audience: Brooks wraps the gun in plastic to avoid blowback, a new one on me. And he grumbles when something goes too easy. (Hacking into the DMV computer: "For all the money we pay the government, you'd think this would be harder.")

Director/writer Bruce A. Evans has had the kind of career that ought to have kept him in movie jail for the length of time Mr. Brooks belongs in actual jail. After working on Stand by Me, he perpetrated Jungle 2 Jungle, Cutthroat Island (no, it's not underrated) and the lamentable Christian Slater vehicle Kuffs, a finalist for my 50 Worst San Francisco movies list.

Calling this Evans' best movie in 15 years isn't saying a thing, but the howler moments are rare, and the thriller manifests the right sort of sardonicism. One can even find a sort of fun in the morality. In serial–killer movies, it's rare to see the dread weight of a killer's conscience counterbalancing the fun of doing someone in.

Movie Times Mr. Brooks (R; 120 min.), directed by Bruce A. Evans, written by Evans and Raynold Gideon, photographed by John Lindley and starring Kevin Costner and Demi Moore, opens June 1 valleywide.

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