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Sympathetic killers aren’t rare in the movies, but the protagonists of A History of Violence, The Memory of a Killer, and El Crimen Perfecto aren’t just killers—they’re murderers, men who cold-bloodedly plan to eliminate their enemies. Although each does reprehensible things, all three have extenuating circumstances. Indeed, the only one of these characters who’s truly bad company is the one who’s supposed to be funny.

Canadian director David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence has an ambiguous title, but there’s nothing equivocal about the first two characters to appear onscreen. They’re natural-born killers whose idea of checking out of a motel is to butcher everyone in the office. The killing takes place inside while the camera stays outside, but it’s clear that an excuse will be found for it to enter the building and survey the carnage. When it does, the scene-ending topper will shock anyone who can take it seriously.

Cronenberg started in low-budget exploitation flicks, and he hasn’t forgotten how to grab an audience by the throat. But this film, adapted by scripter Josh Olson from John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel, is mostly laconic and low-key. Like The Road to Perdition—although without that movie’s samurai heritage—A History of Violence is an homage to the principled killer, a man who once did what he had to do—and still can if he has to.

That man is Tom (Viggo Mortensen), who runs a cafe in the little town of Millbrook, Ind. Although the movie was filmed, of course, in and around Toronto, Millbrook is an apotheosis of small-town U.S.A. Tom is gentle and soft-spoken and cannot abide violence, even when his teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), must defend himself against the local bullies. Tom’s wife, Edie (Maria Bello), is wholesomely sexy: When she wants to turn him on, she changes into her old cheerleader outfit. “We never got to be teenagers together,” she explains. That’s because Tom is Not From Around Here, although his foreignness isn’t a big issue until the two psychokillers from the opening sequence arrive in Millbrook and decide to annihilate everyone in the cafe. Tom responds with well-honed hand-to-hand combat skills, suggesting that in another life (or another dimension) he was some sort of warrior.

After Tom appears on TV and in the newspapers, a trio of thugs arrive in town. Their coolly vengeful leader (Ed Harris) insists that Tom’s real name isn’t Tom and that he’s a former gangster from the big bad city. These hoodlums disrupt Tom’s life and marriage—although Edie’s new distrust of her husband doesn’t preclude gratuitous nudity or hot sex—and that’s just the beginning. Eventually, Tom will have to confront a whole phalanx of antagonists from his past, including a particularly intimate one (William Hurt). Millbrook threatens to become a killing field of dreams.

With Howard Shore’s score aping Aaron Copland’s Americana, A History of Violence hints that it’s the story not of one man’s history of violence but of an entire country’s. It isn’t, though. The movie is merely a rarefied genre piece, its Badlands-like detachment aspiring to a critique that its narrative can’t sustain. The film’s most interesting aspect is its careful balance of the restrained and the sensational, not just in the quickly rendered brutality but also in the performances: Mortensen’s eager normality has an icy core, and Harris’ and Hurt’s steely demeanors flirt with the baroque.

Too bad the movie’s theme isn’t as complex as these performances. Like Cronenberg’s previous undertaking, Spider, A History of Violence marshals exceptional craft in the service of a story that proves disappointingly elementary.

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Swooping into an apartment where a father is peddling his 12-year-old daughter’s body, The Memory of a Killer begins with a precredits prologue that seems designed to introduce its hero, Antwerp police investigator Eric Vincke (Koen De Bouw). After the bust is bungled—at the cost of the bad dad, not his child—the focus switches to a ruthless but courtly hit man, Angelo Ledda (Jan Decleir). It turns out that Ledda is the film’s central character, yet that opening sequence is integral. Riffing on a well-publicized Belgian scandal, this flashy Flemish policier pursues what initially appears to be an isolated case of child prostitution all the way into the local aristocracy.

Writer-director Erik Van Looy and co-writer Carl Joos based their script on a novel called The Alzheimer Case, which was also the film’s European title—and the name under which the movie screened last fall in the American Film Institute’s European Union Showcase. Forgetting that title was a smart move, and not just because it suggests a medical drama. Ledda supposedly has Alzheimer’s, which allows for some Memento-derived schtick: He writes crucial facts on his arms, and he sometimes wonders if he’s committed murders he can’t remember. But Ledda’s affliction is an unconvincing—and unusually psychedelic—version of the disease. To slow his memory loss, he frantically pops pills as choppy, chartreuse-tinted inserts express his bewilderment. It’s as if someone has dosed his ginkgo biloba with LSD.

A former Antwerp resident who’s still bitter about his life there, Ledda arrives from Marseilles by train and quickly dispatches his first victim, a corrupt city planner. Then the assassin pursues his second assignment, only to balk when he discovers it’s a 12-year-old hooker—the same one Vincke encountered in the opening sequence. Rather than kill her, Ledda begins to eliminate the men who hired him, a campaign that soon leads to some prominent citizens. Vincke tries to catch him, of course, but the two eventually become allies of a sort. They both hate the same exploiters, even if Ledda’s means of dealing with them is blunter and more irrevocable. Don’t worry that Ledda will become too much the hero to be punished: The hit man is weary of life anyway, so he will accept any fate with equanimity.

Ledda is the film’s most interesting figure, and not just because Decleir has a classic gangster’s mug and an ample supply of tough-guy charisma. Although outfitted with a variety of quirks—as well as the customary hotheaded partner—Vincke is a standard-issue cop-flick protagonist. He’s as unexceptional as the bureaucratic feud he’s having with Antwerp’s dimwitted uniformed cops, whose only role is to get in the way of justice. The rest of The Memory of a Killer is sleek camera moves, neon tints, symbolic rain, and a glib blend of exploitation and moral outrage. The result is brisk and entertaining—but unlikely to linger in the mind much longer than one of Ledda’s elusive memories.

It’s kill or be killed in the savage world of El Crimen Perfecto’s Rafael Gonzalez, who works…at a Madrid department store. The master salesman at the center of director Alex de la Iglesia’s strident, overextended black comedy peddles ladies’ wear to matrons by day and himself to beautiful saleswomen by night. Introduced in a tracking shot that first glides across the naked beauty in his bed, Rafael (Guillermo Toledo) talks directly to the camera, explaining his philosophy of life and extolling the “perfection” of his consumer “kingdom.” There’s only one blemish on Rafael’s contentment: The promotion he craves is about to go to his longtime rival, unstylish men’s-department supervisor Don Antonio (Luis Varela).

Soon after the shocking announcement, the two adversaries tussle in a dressing room and Antonio is accidentally impaled on a clothes hook. With the help of devoted salesclerk Lourdes (Mónica Cervera), Rafael disposes of the body, an exercise in gruesome slapstick so exhausting that by all rights it should be followed by the final credits. (Anyone who concludes that Spanish department-store fixtures are unacceptably hazardous should note that a Las Vegas– hotel towel hook proved equally fatal in the equally tiresome Very Bad Things.)

Alas, that’s just the first act of this near-interminable movie. Homely Lourdes is the one female employee whom Rafael has never favored with his attention, and she’s ready for her close-up. In exchange for not going to the police, Lourdes expects Rafael to take her to amusement parks, make polite conversation with her repulsive family, and ultimately marry her. Rafael plays along, while continually keeping one eye open for an escape route. He’s likely not the only one—a movie this sluggish and repetitive can make watches, exit signs, and concession stands seem immensely interesting.

Director and co-writer de la Iglesia’s 1993 debut, Acción Mutante, was a sci-fi satire about a rebel group that rejects the cult of human beauty. It was produced by Pedro Almodóvar, who also has a taste for sharp-featured, unbeautiful actresses such as Cervera. But unlike his onetime mentor, de la Iglesia maintains a one-dimensional—and rather antique—view of intergender combat: If Rafael is a cad, he’s a basically harmless one; it’s Lourdes’ frantic desire for domesticity that is El Crimen Perfecto’s true horror.

Ultimately, the director is too timid to destroy either of his lead characters—which allows him to deploy them one last time for an ironic epilogue. He could be the only one who considers this reprise a treat. While de la Iglesia lovingly hangs on to Rafael and Lourdes, impatient viewers might very well be imagining them impaled on clothes hooks.CP