Say what you will about Tyler Perry, when the actor attempts to branch out into a new genre, he doesn’t mess around. With Alex Cross, a thriller inspired by the literary work of populist novelist James Patterson, Perry throws himself into the role – embracing the dark, violent and borderline unredeemable persona of a vengeful lawman searching for justice, revenge and a way for Perry to finally break out into the periphery of white, mainstream American culture. Oh, white, mainstream American culture – when will you finally learn cop procedurals are your Achilles’ heel?
Despite having a relatively niche fanbase, Tyler Perry is no stranger to success. The filmmaker’s popular line of Madea movies has made Perry a small fortune and the freedom to make pretty much any film he desires. Alex Cross represents Perry’s chance to break free of his usual audience and reach a new group of consumers – those that like boring, cookie cutter crime novels written by a somnambulist with a typewriter. To embark on this mission improbable, Perry has teamed with vanilla action director Rob Cohen for a cop thriller that strings a fairly pedestrian potboiler like so much popcorn tinsel around the garish, slightly decaying Christmas tree that is Matthew Fox’s unrepentantly nutso performance.
Alex Cross is a superhuman detective – possessing an uncanny ability to suss out clues where none seemingly exist. A master profiler, Cross and his partner Tommy Kane (Edward Burns picking up his borderline parody cop performance from where he left it at the conclusion of this year’s Man on a Ledge) are called into a case concerning a four-course murder feast with a side of torture salad. Unbeknownst to Cross, the hit was the work of Michael “The Butcher” Sullivan, a mysterious hitman who spends his free time doing wonderful charcoal portraits of his victims. Classy!
After Sullivan crosses the line and puts Cross’ family in danger (doesn’t he know “Don’t ever cross Alex Cross”?), the two become entangled in a battle of wills that quickly becomes personal. Thanks to the direction of Rob Cohen, the man who helped turn Vin Disel into an action star with The Fast and the Furious and XXX, Alex Cross freely colors outside the line of a traditional police procedural – filling the film with all the excesses of the finest mid-‘00s comic book movie. Before long the assassin is harnessing rocket launchers and Alex Cross is sawing off shotgun barrels.
Alex Cross’ power of deduction is lifted straight from the playbook of your favorite eccentric television detective. Able to pull intimate details about the private lives of his family and co-workers through a mere glance, Cross is Sherlock Holmes in a do-rag (that’s not racist – he actually wears a do-rag in one scene!) – except when he isn’t. Cross’ attempt to second-guess the The Butcher leads to a sloppy miscalculation with disastrous results – disastrously tacky! Alex Cross’ screenwriter has no shame when trying to elicit an audience’s sympathy and the film is a mess of over-the-top shock and “aww.”
That said, Perry gives the role his all – grimacing, glaring and gravitas-ing his way through the movie. It’s damn remarkable that the actor, who found his fame and fortune by dressing in drag and acting the fool, remains the most grounded aspect of the film. In fact, in comparison to some of the wackier aspects of Alex Cross, the character’s deduction skills seem almost routine.
Of course, it would be near impossible to not seem quaint when cast in the shadow of the one man Heath Ledger tribute band that is Matthew Fox. A lean, mean piece of animate beef jerky, Fox full-on apes the performance of Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight for his role as The Butcher in Alex Cross. Full of calculated ticks, grins and head bobs, Fox is either playing high-camp or playing a velociraptor. The former Lost star is a glorious, bright shining star of goofiness that, with his performance as an eccentric, roided out assassin, single-handedly provides a reason to recommend Alex Cross. A coil of tensed-up muscles and bizarre vocal patterns, Fox squirms his way through the movie like a greased up Nicholas Cage on E. It’s not easy to out-act John C. McGinley in a movie but Fox does so with ease.
Alex Cross is a movie that knows full well how ridiculous it is but manages to keep a straight face throughout the entire proceeding. Even as characters drop outrageous bits of product placement or espouse laugh-out-loud bits of dialogue, everybody remains super serious about the affair. This barely restrained camp manages to actually heighten the experience. Alex Cross is like watching an elaborate prank pulled off by a group of extremely talented professionals who at any given moment are on the verge of breaking out into uncontrollably hysterical fits of lunacy. The prank being that Tyler Perry actually somehow managed to transform himself into an action star but he only way to subdue the star’s unwieldy baggage was to surround himself with an over-the-top villain and a Hiroshima shadow of a supporting cast. Tyler Perry has finally found his breakout role – too bad the rest of the movie is just as uninviting and inexplicable as the rest of the actor’s oeuvre.
Director: Rob Cohen
Writer: Marc Moss and Kerry Willamson, based on the novel ”Cross” by James Patterson
Notable Cast: Tyler Perry, Matthew Fox, Edward Burns and John C. McGinley