Apparently the Alex Cross character, originated by best-selling author James Patterson in an unending series of pulp novels, and brought to the screen twice before (in a pair of forgettable, moodily-lit Morgan Freeman thrillers), is a bankable enough property to re-launch a large-ish franchise around, because that's what the good folks at Summit have just done. The hook, this time, is that it's something of a prequel, just titled "Alex Cross," and that its star is Tyler Perry, who has made a fortune for himself starring in, writing and directing his very own movies. The problem is that Tyler Perry the actor is just as hammy and unfocused as Tyler Perry the filmmaker, and that "Alex Cross" is more boring than your average weeknight procedural, except much longer, dumber and more violent.
Instead of the professorial FBI agent that Freeman embodied in "Kiss the Girls" and the anemic "Along Came A Spider," this is a young Alex Cross who is, despite his degree in psychology and a sterling reputation, still a rather enthusiastic beat cop for the Detroit PD. He's got an offer from the FBI though, which would mean relocating his family to Washington, D.C., something both his comely wife Carmen (the perpetually underutilized Carmen Ejogo) and childhood friend/partner Tommy (Edward Burns) protest openly. But before he can make any decisions about his career, he's got to track down (along with a third detective, played by the lovely Rachel Nichols) a daring serial killer/hitman (Matthew Fox) who drugs his victims before doing really nasty things to them.
The first section of the film is like a weird buddy movie, with Perry and Burns palling around and saying stuff like "I'd rather take advice from a ham sandwich than listen to you," which is apparently something the screenwriters thought real people say to each other. In one scene, which wouldn't have felt out of place in Michael Bay's orgiastic, blood-soaked "Bad Boys II," the two cops bicker about which one is going to use a severed finger to open up the hidden safe of a murder victim. While Cross is supposed to be some crack detective, and there's a scene where he tries to "discover" what is going on with his wife, using Sherlock Holmesian powers of deduction ("You went and got a latte," etc.). He must use these same skills to figure out where the extravagantly unsubtle Fox is going to turn up next or what the grand architecture of the fairly obvious conspiracy is. And when he uses his psychological background (a number of the characters refer to him as "Detective Doctor Alex Cross," which is quite the mouthful), it comes off as clunky and unconvincing. At one point he starts a monologue off hypothesizing about the one-dimensionally evil Fox, "Maybe he's mad at his mother, or the whole world, who knows…" Who does know?!
Fox, for his part, really goes for it in his barely-written role. He looks deathly thin, like a cancer patient who regularly practices judo, and manages to maintain a certain amount of dignity, even when he's being asked to slither up a drainage pipe or angrily brood around his shabby chic boathouse. (Note to screenwriters: a dude cannot live in a boathouse and still be scary.) Admittedly, Fox actively strains to give his character color and depth, but the script is just as skeletal as he is, and he remains a cipher.
"Alex Cross" was directed by Rob Cohen, a hack action director best known for the original "Fast and the Furious" and the lame-brained spy thing "xXx," who, while not exactly a visionary auteur, has been around long enough to know how to put a scene together and where to place a camera. But "Alex Cross" feels like it was put together by a director with only a passing understanding of what movies are and how they're assembled – how one scene builds to the next, how to shoot an action sequence (hint: it doesn't have as many clunky whip-pans), and how to realistically portray human emotion. Instead, this is like action movie finger paint – big smears of emotion and activity without proper context or shading. It would be one thing if the absurdity in "Alex Cross" was high enough and sustained for a serious amount of time, so it could at least be considered camp and fun. But more often than not, it gets dragged back down to procedural clichés and eye-rolling sequences of dudes walking around crime scenes that we've seen about a million times before (all better).
If "Alex Cross" is a hit, though, it will be because of its megawatt lead. Perry's success is admirable, even though the movies are barely watchable. From the far away land of Atlanta, Georgia, he's been able to cobble together an empire that includes plays, movies, and television series, and putting his weight behind serious Oscar contenders like "Precious" while still maintaining his particular brand of broad, faith-based comedy-dramas. Put front and center in somebody else's thriller, though, almost all of the charisma and twinkly intelligence that makes him such a draw in his own movies bleeds away. What's left is a lead actor with a husky frame, like the archway of a large door, lumbering through the motions. It's clearly evident that he's most at home in the scenes of domesticity, whether he's "detecting" his wife's pregnancy or bickering with his mother (Cicely Tyson, deserving better) about whether or not he should hunt down Fox, and loses interest once he's on the beat again. It doesn't take a lot of evidence to understand how misguided and uninspired "Alex Cross" really is. [D-]