Alex Cross doesn’t work as a film, although it does prove that Tyler Perry can be a successful leading man in projects he has no creative and/or financial control over. He takes the reins from Morgan Freeman as the title character and is about as convincing as he can be in what’s essentially nothing more than an action/crime thriller. The issue here isn’t his casting or his performance; it’s the way director Rob Cohen and writers Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson restructure the character into someone we won’t especially like when the movie is over. It’s also the plot and the development of the other characters. So much of what we see and hear is so lacking in context and logistics, it’s almost as if the filmmakers expected us to take the film for granted. I suspect that only those intimately familiar with James Patterson’s original novels – including Cross, this film’s inspiration – would be able to do that.
Taking place almost entirely in Detroit, we find Detective Cross on the trail of a serial killer (Matthew Fox), whose real name isn’t known but who’s referred to both as Picasso and The Butcher. He earns the first nickname for his charcoal drawings of his victims, some lifelike, others abstract. The second nickname, which he bestows on himself during an unnecessary MMA sequence early on, stems from his compulsion to torture his victims to death after injecting them with a newly developed toxin, one that keeps the recipient physically paralyzed yet mentally aware. He claims to be fascinated by pain, and indeed, we see him cutting the fingers off of a woman and cauterizing the wounds with a mini blowtorch. He’s not some random psychopath; he has the expert skills of a marksman and a fighter, suggesting a military background, and he’s technically savvy, able to manipulate highly advanced electronic equipment.
Cross isn’t quite a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, although his powers of observation are remarkably keen. His deductive reasoning skills, on the other hand, are a little rusty, which is astonishing given the fact that he’s also a psychologist. He isn’t able to foresee, for example, that The Butcher will come after Cross and the team assigned to his case. For Cross and his partner/best friend, Tommy Kane (Edward Burns), what begins as a case of international intrigue will soon become excruciatingly personal. This is the point at which both men, Cross especially, drop the dutiful police act and become vigilantes hell bent on having their revenge. No doubt they’re both suffering, but some of the lengths they go to are so unpleasant that we find we can’t root for them anymore – certainly not to the extent the filmmakers want us to.
Regarding the international intrigue, it’s surprisingly difficult to make heads or tails of. This isn’t to suggest it’s needlessly convoluted. Simply put, it never feels as if we’re being given enough information; it’s a little like entering a conversation that’s halfway finished. This makes the ending especially problematic, as that’s the point at which all is revealed. If there aren’t enough clues left behind, how can we be expected to piece them together and make sense of the obligatory explanation? The character of The Butcher presents a similar problem, since we’re given no real insight as to who he is. What kind of background did he have? What could have possibly led to his unhealthy fascination with pain and torture? Perhaps we could have overlooked this had Fox’s performance not been so exaggerated. The way he delivers certain lines, you’d swear he was a descendant of a James Bond villain.
An attempt is made at examining Cross’ personal life, and to a much lesser extent, Kane’s. I cannot reveal too much about either man’s life, as their actions and behaviors late in the film depend on events that cannot be spoiled, predictable though they may be. I can say that Cross is introduced as having a pregnant wife named Maria (Carmen Ejogo), as well as son, a daughter, and an elderly mother (Cicely Tyson), who serves no real purpose other than being a firm, no-nonsense grandmother and her son’s voice of reason. I can also say that Kane is secretly dating another detective named Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols); both of them know that their being romantically involved is dangerous, not only to themselves but also to their department.
As we all know, Tyler Perry is primarily known for his comedic Madea films, the vast majority of which star and are written, produced, and directed by himself. On the basis of this film, I have no doubt that he can be a reliable and entertaining leading man in films he did not have a hand in creating – an actor that could believably be featured in a wide variety of movies, from character-driven dramas to escapist summer blockbusters. His performance in Alex Cross is competent enough, even though the film itself fell short of that goal. If by some miracle this movie spawns a new series of James Patterson adaptations with Perry as the star, I can only hope more of an effort will be made to ensure that each new chapter is more original, more comprehensible, and more interesting. And with any luck, his character will be developed in such a way that he’s actually likeable.
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