Tyler Perry is one of the highest-earning African-American male movie stars working today, and that’s apparently the only reason anyone thought it would be a good idea to cast him in a rebooted series based on James Patterson’s Alex Cross crime novels. As an actor, Perry has what Liam Neeson’s “Taken” character might call “a specific set of skills,” but those skills don’t include convincingly portraying a cop-slash-psychiatrist on the mean streets of Detroit.
Based on the character’s first adventure “Cross” (Morgan Freeman played Alex in two films based on later novels in the series), “Alex Cross” is essentially an origin story, the tale that transitions him from a Detroit police detective to an FBI profiler, complete with a Really Big Tragedy that will haunt the brilliant investigator throughout the rest of his life.
We originally see Cross chasing a perp through the sewers and capturing him with the help of his comrades Tommy (Edward Burns) and Monica (Rachel Nichols); the latter two are also, incidentally, doing a terrible job of hiding their non-regulation romance from their coworker. It’s not long before the movie unleashes its supervillain, a bald, sinewy, tattooed hired killer known as Picasso (Matthew Fox).
One imagines some agent somewhere assuring Fox that by starving himself for the role, this movie was going to be his “Christian Bale moment.” And while Fox’s body-modification is certainly impressive, his mugging and overacting detract from the overall effect.
Anyway, Picasso has been hired to eliminate three higher-ups at a multinational corporation, with his ultimate target apparently being Giles Mercier (Jean Reno, jambon-ing it up); as Cross and his team attempt to foil Picasso, they soon find that they themselves, and their loved ones, have entered the assassin’s cross-hairs.
There’s plenty to find ridiculous in this latest overblown action epic from director Rob Cohen (“The Fast and the Furious,” “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”) from Tommy’s mullet to Cross’ discovering a clue by randomly turning one of Picasso’s charcoal sketches into a Mad magazine Fold-In to the pimp-garbed extra in an underground fight club to Cross’ dismissal of Picasso as a “status-seeking sociopathic narcissist.” (Wasn’t that a deleted verse from “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”?)
Cohen does manage to craft some nifty set pieces (which all appear to take place in the Motor City even though shooting took place in both Detroit and Cleveland), but Picasso’s sniper shots are far more compelling than the hand-to-hand combat scenes, which feature at least as much shaky-cam and incomprehensible editing as “Taken 2,” if not more.
But the big problem here is Tyler Perry, woefully out of his league as an action hero. His cross-dressing performance in the recent “Madea’s Witness Protection” reeked of exhaustion, as though he couldn’t wait to bust out of the fat suit and the gray wig and show the world his other skills as a performer. Unfortunately, if you’ve seen “Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds” or “Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too,” you know that a non-Madea Perry barely registers on the screen.
Most of his work as Alex Cross is suffused with blandness, broken up only by the occasional moment of ridiculous overacting. (He has a phone call with Picasso that’s guaranteed to become a YouTube favorite.) Toward the end of the film, Cross gets angry with his police chief (John C. McGinley) and starts speaking quickly and in a higher pitch, and for a moment, you remember how outrageously entertaining Perry’s Madea can be. You may also find yourself rewriting the entire movie with her as the lead.
The rest of the players are a very mixed bag: Cicely Tyson and Giancarlo Esposito make an impression during their brief turns as, respectively, Cross’ mother and a local crime lord, but the only lazier thing a casting agent can do than to pick McGinley for a police chief is to hire Burns to play yet another cop. They’re both fine actors, to be sure, but they can (and do) play these parts in their sleep.
Say what you will about Tyler Perry’s cinematic oeuvre, no self-made mogul who’s this successful has only one arrow in his quiver. Whatever turns out to be his post-Madea star turn, however, “Alex Cross” most definitely isn’t it.