In Defense Of Tyler Perry's 'Alex Cross,' A Critique Of The Source Material (The Real Culprit)

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by Tambay A. Obenson
October 22, 2012 10:10 AM
12 Comments
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Given this weekend's lackluster box office results for Tyler Perry's entry into action-hero movie territory, I thought I'd revisit this 2010 entry I posted on the old S&A site, which broke down James Patterson's I, Alex Cross, the novel that, at the time, we believed would be the source material for the film that opened on Friday.

While it wasn't the Cross novel that the film did end up being based on (the 12th novel in the franchise, titled Cross, was its source material, although it was a loose adaptation), I have since read other novels in the series, just to get a good feel for Patterson's style, given that the first book I read (I, Alex Cross) didn't at all impress me. I wanted to give the franchise a fair shake, so I read 4 more of them. 

And I can tell you that there isn't much difference (in terms of style and substance) in the 5 Alex Cross novels I've read since 2010. 

The material just isn't very strong; it's all very thin like cotton candy, except not as sweet - the kind of novels you'd sit and read in a matter of hours, toss aside and forget you'd ever read them. More laughable than thrilling, they just aren't filling at all. Not to me anyway.

So I wanted to revisit this 2010 book-to-film report, because, as I said in a post about the film late last week, while I didn't think Tyler Perry was the man for the job, I also stated that the film's critical (and now commercial) failure wasn't entirely his fault. Even Idris Elba (who was originally attached to star) couldn't have saved this movie, if the film's script and director remained the same. Box office may have been a bit higher, since it's Idris, and he may have been more of a draw than Perry, especially in a role like this. But reviews would've still been poor, and word of mouth would've killed the film's long-term take.

The source material itself is terribly weak and offers absolutely nothing new to the genre. If this were made 30 years ago, it might have been considered ground-breaking. But we've seen the serial killer, man-hunt, revenge movie done so many times, and done a hell of a lot better.

If you're going to make a movie in that genre in 2012, it had better be something transgressive, that pushes the boundaries of that box, or even blows up the box.

This is unfortunately entry-level stuff. Maybe for Tyler Perry it's a significant move since it's unlike anything he's done before; but for many of us who've seen these kinds of films over the years, it's trite and ultimately uninteresting. 

So I wanted to revisit this break-down of the first novel I read in the franchise (the 16th in the series) - I, Alex Cross - to give you some idea of what the filmmakers had to work from, and how much work they needed to do in order to really up the ante.

And also acknowledging the fact that, as much as those who despise Tyler Perry would like to believe, he isn't entirely to blame for the film's shortcomings; there's plenty of that to pass around (we can talk about Rob Cohen's direction too); but it all starts with the source material. And if they started out with something that was far more weighty and risque than what I've read of the franchise, the film would've probably been better received.

So I'd point the finger also at James Patterson, the screenwriter who adapted the novel, as well the studio who greenlit the picture as is, with this terrible script. 

While some critics have dismissed Tyler Perry's performance, some didn't; yet it's practically universal among critics, that the story, the writing, and the direction do almost everything possible to ensure that the movie fails.

I'd readily admit that, despite the fact that we've continuously teased him about the role, and that it seems many would like to dump the film's failures entirely on his shoulders, Tyler Perry is not the worst thing about this movie. Remember, unlike other Perry movies, the only role he played in the film's production, was that of actor. He didn't write the script, nor did he direct. He gave up control to others to shape the story, and mold the actors.

And I'd argue that stronger source material, a much better script, and another director, who maybe knew how to play to Perry's strengths, would've yielded different results. But we'll never know now, will we?

So my suggestion to Summit Entertainment, if they plan to go ahead with the sequel, would be to use the novel as source, BUT the script would have to be far more inventive, beefy and even dangerous. If you're going to go *there* with the material, then really go *there* with it. Make it the dark, brooding, thrilling, unpredictable, even scary movie that I think fans would love.

The problem is that Tyler seems to want to continue to appeal to and rely on his core base of fans; but it's clear that they prefer Madea to this; so I say, for Alex Cross 2, forget your base, and make the kind of movie that the rest of us, who are fans of the genre, would want to see. Surprise us! Push the envelope, and see where that takes you. You may surprise yourself as well.

Anyway... here's the book-to-film report I wrote in 2010; Keep in mind that I wrote this about a year before Tyler Perry replaced Idris Elba, so Tyler had absolutely no influence on the piece. 

BEGIN

Today's edition centers on James Patterson's Cross, which, as we already reported on this blog last week, Idris Elba has officially signed on to play Dr. Alex Cross, in a movie centered on the fictional African American forensic psychologist/detective, who lives in several of James Patterson’s best-selling thrillers.

You should recall that Morgan Freeman originally assumed the role of Alex Cross twice, in Kiss The Girls (1997), and Along Came A Spider (2001), both adaptations of Patterson novels in his Alex Cross series, which contains 16 titles, the last being I, Alex Cross, published last fall.

So, there's the potential for a franchise here for Idris, starting with Cross, the 12th novel in the series, published in 2006; and in it, Dr. Cross “tracks a serial rapist who may have murdered his pregnant wife years before.

David Twohy (likely most famous for the Chronicles Of Riddick franchise), will direct, from a screenplay written by Kerry Williamson, a newcomer with 3 unproduced written titles on his/her resume.

Production is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2011.

Alright, I'm going to be short and frank with you all about this. I really want this film adaptation to be successful, for obvious reasons. But it's not going to be, if the film is a direct translation of the book, as written.

I should mention that this is my first time reading any of James Patterson's novels - specifically, those from the "Cross" series. So, my interpretation of the material is based solely on this single title, which I picked up over the weekend, and read within 2 days. It's one of those, what I'd call "airport novels" that you buy and read entirely, on your 6-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles.

Cross is briskly-paced, and light enough (for better and for worse) to digest in one sitting. It's like fast food reading!

I realize that, thanks to seminal films like Silence Of The Lambs (also based on a book), and David Fincher's Se7en, it's probably tough to tell a wholly original serial killer story nowadays, because films like those have been released aplenty in the last decade or so, in a variety of tales, that any new narrative in that sub-genre will automatically be compared to previous similar, superior titles, which puts future projects at an instant disadvantage.

Cross, as written, isn't exactly what I'd call ambitious. It's derivative, cheesy, and just not very captivating. If you've seen Kiss The Girls or Along Came A Spider, you should know what to expect. This is actually worse than those, I'd say.

I'm not exactly a James Patterson aficionado, so, I can't say if this is indicative of much of his other work (other than the "Cross" series). Regardless, this is the first book that will be adapted in the Idris Elba "Cross" era, if you will, and it's just, well, dull reading. And thus, for Idris' sake, I really, truly hope that director Twohy and screenwriter Williamson, don't make a direct translation of the book - essentially taking every chapter as written, and shooting it as is. If that's their approach, the franchise will be short-lived, just as Morgan Freeman's reign was limited to just 2 books in the 16-book series.

The material is meant to be dark and brooding, but it reads more like a made-for-tv Sunday night movie, full of cliched characters and silly dialogue. The adapted screenplay would need to be far more gut-wrenching, lurid, and horrifying to have much impact, especially if it's to compete with its contemporaries. Although it can surpass them with its smarts, instead of relying almost solely on blood and gore to shock and awe the audience. 

Some of the sub-genre's standards:

- The serial killer is male. Check.

- The serial killer had a troubled childhood that helped create the monster he has become today; Maybe an abusive parent. Check.

- He killed the abusive parent. Check.

- His victims are mostly women with type-A personalities, because he likes to subjugate them, to make himself feel superior, and he gets pleasure from seeing them fearful and without control. Check.

- He likes to play games, whether with his victims, or with the man/woman (usually an officer of the law) who is after him. Check.

- He's sadistic and likes to chop up his victims bodies after having his way with and killing them. Check.

- He has his weapon of choice. Check.

- He's hard to kill/catch, despite several close-calls, some in which his death/capture should have been certain, but he manages to somehow magically escape... saving him for the final showdown with our hero. Check.

And so on, and so forth.

This one even works in a subplot centered on the Italian mob, which comes with its own set of generic mobster story types. 

As for our hero, Dr Alex Cross - D.C. detective and forensic psychologist - he's a little too perfect. There isn't a scratch on this man. He's level-headed, always composed, well-educated, well-to-do, incredibly nice, loyal, loves his family very, very much, doesn't drink, smoke, overeat; the man seems to have no vices whatsoever. He's just one hell of guy who, by the way, is great at his job, and seems to be well-liked by everyone who knows him - except his nemesis of course.

And for all those reasons, he's just not an interesting character; kind of boring actually. I'm not implying that he needs to be a foul-mouthed, egotistical loose-canon like John McClane. But he needs some blemishes to make him more appealing and memorable to the film's audience. He needs some range.

The villain is much more captivating (as cliched as he is), and if the script adaptation follows the novel literally, Idris may find himself in danger of being upstaged by whoever plays Mike "The Butcher" Sullivan.

And while I can see the attraction to the role for Idris, given that there aren't exactly any African American sleuths in the movies today, especially one with the potential at a franchise, there's just not much here, in Alex Cross, for an actor to sink his teeth into.

Attempts at tension buildup are routinely nullified by predictability. There are just enough twists and turns to keep the average viewer mostly entertained - but just barely.

I could say the same thing for both previous Morgan Freeman Cross films, even though they did fairly well at the box office, with Kiss The Girls making about $60 million (domestic), and Along Came A Spider making $74 million (also domestic). Not bad, despite poor reviews from the critics.

I re-watched Along Came A Spider last night, just to remind myself of it, and was reminded of just how thin, absurd, and ultimately forgettable it is. I laughed at how ridiculous and obvious some of the scenarios were.

Although, I'd argue that both films wouldn't do nearly as well as they did back then, if released today.

Kiss The Girls was released in 1997; Along Came A Spider in 2001. Times and tastes have changed, and I think it'll be hard to fool audiences into theaters with this one, even with Idris Elba's face plastered all over publicity materials.

The story, as is, seriously lacks what I'd call punch! I really needed to feel something for the characters; I needed to connect to something on some level, whether visceral or intellectual, or both. It's missing a heartbeat, and I hope the screenplay adaptation doesn't simply dump what's in the novel into Final Draft.

If the intent here is to create an "Alex Cross" franchise for Idris Elba, it's crucial that the filmmakers come out of the gates swinging, and swinging hard, in order to make an impression on the audience, so that they'll return for more, when the next chapter is adapted for the screen.

I hope that they're not just expecting that Idris' popularity will carry the film to box office success. We all still want to see a good film, and we on this blog need material to write about, so I have a vested interest in the film's success.

Worth noting is that the film, which is scheduled to go into production next spring, will be privately financed, and no studio distribution has been set yet. Although Paramount Pictures is believed to be a possibility. So, there's a chance that, since it'll be independently financed, the production company behind the project (Curious Pictures) just might give the filmmakers the freedom to really spiff up the story, and interject some much needed life into its star character.

If anyone else has read the book, feel free to share your thoughts.

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12 Comments

  • smashmouth | October 23, 2012 7:53 PMReply

    Alex Cross was a good film and Tyler Perry's most positive and layered to date. Stop hating on the brother for stepping his game up. No doubt Tambay would NEVER EVER say any rhetoric that he and his biased staff have been spouting to Tyler Perry's face. Want to see a REALLY funny youtube clip? Someone catch on video when Tyler Perry gives Tambay the Madea backhand and drops him to the ground if he ever stepped to him stuttering with his cowardly and been-tired comments. Now THAT I would pay top dollar to see!

  • Donella | October 23, 2012 6:58 PMReply

    Sometimes productions work out better when the author of the source material steps aside to allow "fresh eyes" to adapt for screen.

  • Brandon | October 22, 2012 11:38 PMReply

    Tyler Perry was the wrong choice for the character, and the novel Cross was the wrong choice for a film adaptation. I've read all the books in the Alex Cross series, and say what you want about Patterson's writing style, but there are SEVERAL stories in the series that would've lent themselves to a better adaptation. Get Idris Elba back in an adaptation of Cross Country, attach Thandie Newton to costar, with David Fincher directing. That is one I'd pay to see.

  • Donella | October 23, 2012 6:58 PM

    I feel something similar about the Jack Reacher (Lee Child) series that Tom Cruise is about to bury for the holidays.

  • Josh | October 22, 2012 11:04 PMReply

    Finally someone who see's Patterson for the hack he is. Maybe next they will adapt the one with the skydiving vampires for villians, or "the mastermind".

  • Miles Maker | October 22, 2012 10:54 PMReply

    Source material aside, when you make a movie adaptation, you shoot for an exceptional cinematic experience. We've scene source material all but abandoned in some adaptations, and we'll excuse that every time when the movie itself is BETTER. I'd like to read the shooting script though. Perhaps TP simply failed to embody the screenwriters vision for the character.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | October 22, 2012 7:57 PMReply

    Patterson's novels reside in the genre marked "junk fiction." But then again, so do Ian Fleming's 007 novels. The Alex Cross franchise is one of those which must be elevated through adaptation and performance; the keys to a great film series are on the pages -- scattered.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | October 22, 2012 7:59 PM

    Also, I don't see this as the death knell for Alex Cross on film. The series will be resurrected, much like the Jack Ryan series -- but Tyler Perry will be its George Lazenby (one night only).

  • AshleyP | October 22, 2012 6:04 PMReply

    I went to see it today after reading a comment by CareyCarey on this site. I think it is the best film Tyler Perry has been a part of. Though it had its issues, I enjoyed it. Thanks CareyCarey!

  • kirk | October 22, 2012 4:08 PMReply

    Tyler Perry king of the melodrama!

  • that dude | October 22, 2012 12:37 PMReply

    Hold on...you're trying to place primary blame on the source material?

    C'MON SON!

    I have not seen the new movie. But I did see the other Alex Cross movies. They were not memorable. But the trailers never made me laugh out loud.

    Did the source material dictate that crazy halfro the Tyler wears?

    Did the the source material dictate that a man still tragically in the closet pretend to be John Shaft?

    The box office of this movie is pretty consistent of what Tyler's movies make when he's not in a dress.

    I appreciate he is tired of performing in drag. But that is how the public enjoys him the most.

  • Nadia | October 22, 2012 1:04 PM

    You're not making much of an argument, except attacking his hairdo, and what you believe his sexuality is, which is tired. Maybe you should actually watch the movie first. I don't think anyone here is saying that Tyler Perry was the best choice for this movie. This site has been against Tyler Perry being in the film from jump. This is a rare instance when there's been an attempt at fairness. Try reading the books and then come back and we'll talk. Better yet, see the damn movie first, and then read other reviews that condemn the writing and directing. C'MON SON!

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