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Alex Cross (A Movie Review)

Alex Cross

Alex Cross

In theory, Hollywood should be a fertile destination for the legal thrillers of best-selling novelist James Patterson.  (It’s a bit of a stretch to call the books Patterson’s novels, because the author is infamous for his assembly-line approach to literature, in which he usually puts together a detailed outline of the book idea and then farms out the actual writing to a series of lesser-known hired “co-authors.”)

Still, Patterson Inc.’s crime novel factory tends to put out fast-paced, violent and rather accessible popcorn drama.  He is responsible for two beloved crime-fighting franchises as well as many additional stand-alone books. 

Yet, Hollywood has never been a very fertile ground for Patterson, compared to similar crime authors like John Grisham or Scott Turow.  They have taken a couple of fliers on him.  A few years back there was a short-lived TV series based on the popular Women’s Murder Club books.  More successfully, in the late 90s and early 00s, Patterson’s best-known adaptations were the movies Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, starring Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman as the same character as this reboot takes on: brilliant FBI agent Alex Cross.

Alex Cross, beyond being a reboot is also something of a prequel to Kiss and Spider.  It is loosely (extremely loosely) based on Patterson’s novel Cross – one of the rare books that Patterson actually completely wrote himself.  It takes place before Cross became an FBI agent, when he is still just an abnormally observant Detroit cop.

However, the main difference – amongst many – between the earlier Cross movies and Alex Cross is Cross himself.  Put very simply, Tyler Perry is no Morgan Freeman. 

Perry has made a mint creating his own film factory, and done particularly well putting on a fat suit and dress and playing the “mad black woman” Madea in a series of extremely popular (and extremely broad) movies about a wild and crazy granny.  However, Perry has also taken on more serious subjects as well – Why Did I Get Married? and For Colored Girls are examples.  The films’ popularity show Perry’s brilliance as a businessman and point out the staggering need for quality films for African American audiences. 

Still, no one – not even his biggest fans – has ever suggested that Tyler Perry was a particularly good writer, director or actor.  He was just one who knew his niche and was able to create sound pieces of entertainment for a specific demographic.

Alex Cross is one of the rare occasions that Tyler Perry’s director is not Tyler Perry – the only other example I can think of off of the top of my head was a small role in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot.  Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, xXx, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), the director here, is not a particularly actor-friendly director anyway, and in Alex Cross Perry’s suspect acting chops are much more noticeable than they ever have been before. 

When an audience is used to this character being played by a terrific actor like Freeman, Perry feels doubly underwhelming.  Granted, many actors would come out on the short end of the stick placed face to face with Freeman.  Still, the only way that Perry has an advantage over Freeman is in youth.  Other than that, his Alex Cross is not nearly as interesting as his predecessor’s.  Not that Cross is necessarily a difficult character to play as an acting workshop, but it often seems beyond Perry’s grasp.

In fact, the film’s whole attempt to revitalize and rough up the franchise fall flat.  Much of this is simply due to the filmmaker’s reimagining of the main character.  Simply put, Cross is unleashed way too much.  Cross is not merely a cop diligently searching for justice, he has gone completely rogue.  Yes, I understand he is avenging his wife’s murder, but that does not excuse all the rules he breaks in Alex Cross, though the filmmakers seem to expect us to cheer his efforts.  Even though they were done for “good,” many of Cross’ actions are illegal and immoral, and would be met in real life with getting kicked off the force or perhaps even arrested, not a promotion to the FBI.

Also, Cross is supposed to be a brilliant, ghetto Sherlock Holmes type of detective, and here he is constantly picking up clues from out of thin air.  Particularly questionable of those were when he suddenly for no particular reason realized his bad guy was on a local train, even though no facts pointed in that direction.  This was one of many moments when you have to wonder if Cross is a brilliant cop or just a really, really lucky guesser.  More likely, screenwriters Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson had written themselves into a corner and had no real way of moving forward, so they just figure that their audience will assume that there was some non-existent foreshadowing for his deductions.  In fact, the climactic battle royale with his nemesis is actually set up by a mostly random car crash. 

Playing that nemesis – a serial hitman with a taste for mixed martial arts and torture and the unlikely professional name “The Butcher of Sligo” – Matthew Fox certainly reinvents himself.  With a buzz cut and a shockingly gaunt, muscular body, Fox certainly looks and acts like a psychopath.  (According to some tabloid stories and tweets from former co-stars, it may not have been such a stretch.)  However, Cohen’s tin-ear when working with actors allows the star to go off the rails, too.

In fact, the acting in general is shockingly bad in Alex Cross.  I remember actually laughing in a scene in which Cross’ 14-year-old daughter throws a fit saying she wants her murdered mom at the mother’s funeral.  Fine actors like Ed Burns, Rachel Nichols and Jean Reno are marooned with bad dialogue and ridiculous actions.  And it is just criminal how far over-the-top an acting treasure like Cicely Tyson is forced to go in her role as Cross’ mother Nana Mama.  In fact, she did not so much resemble a real woman as she resembled – well, Madea.

I find it hard to believe that Alex Cross will usher in Patterson’s detective to Hollywood prominence, though Patterson’s book Double Cross has been optioned for a potential sequel, depending I suppose on how well this first film does.  I don’t know what the box office take will be (though I can’t imagine it will be good), but completely from an artistic standpoint, this new reboot already needs another reboot.  Better yet, let’s just forget the whole thing for another decade or more.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2012 All rights reserved. Posted: October 17, 2012.

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