Trite "Alex Cross" Is Awfully Entertaining

When a film aims as low as “Alex Cross,” it becomes a near impossibility to watch with a critical eye. In this case, banality envelops the picture to such a degree that it fades away – in other words, it clobbers you with stupidity so often that you eventually stop noticing. All that’s left is an inexplicably watchable film, ripe with bad visual and narrative choices that ultimately don’t matter much because in the world of junk food cinema, we just want to be entertained. I can’t recommend it, but it never bored me, which is more than I can say about plenty of superior films. If you’re looking for enjoyable nonsense, you’ve absolutely come to the right place. And who better to propagate such nonsense than director Rob Cohen (“The Fast And The Furious”) and star Tyler Perry?

In the United States, Tyler Perry is a cultural phenomenon – his films alone have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars and his fanbase is wildly devoted. For the uninitiated, he’s made a career of stage and film work aimed at African-American audiences, often starring in his own films as “Madea,” a loud, cantankerous, elderly lady. Even if you’ve never seen a “Madea” film (and I haven’t), you’re likely aware of the impact of the character and the success Perry has seen in every medium he’s explored – print, film, and TV. He’s also no stranger to bad reviews. His films have been trashed year in and year out, often criticized for perpetuating negative stereotypes or generally being unfunny. “Alex Cross” is Perry’s first major venture outside of his own brand, and his only involvement was in the acting department.

Based on James Patterson’s “Cross” novels, the film is a reboot of sorts – the title role was first played by Morgan Freeman in 1997’s “Kiss The Girls” and 2001’s “Along Came A Spider.” This iteration of Alex Cross is a Detroit homicide detective who, along with his partner and best friend, Tommy Kane (Edward Burns), gets caught up in the warped games of a serial killer nicknamed “Picasso” (played by a gaunt but menacing Matthew Fox). When Picasso (named for the convenient cubist drawings he leaves behind at murder scenes) harms one of Cross’ family members, Cross turns vigilante in an effort to exact revenge. Unfortunately, the plotting is anything but exact.

Lazy storytelling is a hallmark of these types of procedural thrillers, but this one is remarkably dense in its understanding of basic logic. Alex Cross knows things. He can figure out where his wife has been from the latte stain on her blouse or that a killer worked alone based on the position of several deceased security guards. He knows because he knows. It’s not even explained as a skill or a sixth sense – it’s just that the screenplay requires him to know these things. However, the film’s biggest narrative issue is even more maddening. Kane’s love interest and partner (played by Rachel Nichols) vanishes from the story halfway through the film. We’ve already spent several lengthy scenes establishing her character as a divide between Cross and Kane, but the role is bizarrely written out of the film at the midpoint. Is she dead? It’s implied, but there’s no reaction from Kane to suggest it and no one speaks of her again. Possibly even more confusing? The film contains a rather lengthy Jean Reno sighting. Where has that guy been?

Cohen’s direction is pedestrian at best (the action is pretty clumsy), and there’s some really lousy ADR (dubbing) that mars lots of the dialogue. Speaking of which, we get plenty of one-liners that are (unintentionally?) hilarious. Actually spoken in the film are gems like Ed Burns’ “Yo, yo, yo, Geico cavemen – how ‘bout we break this thing down in English?” and “Nonsense! This building is impenetrable!” The special effects are bad and the picture’s color palette is patently uninteresting. But all of these shortcomings are par for the course and don’t detract from what the film is supposed to do – pass the time.

Perry and Fox give very different but very compelling performances. Perry brings a definite gravitas to the screen and he delivers the silliest of dialogue with complete conviction. He makes Cross a guy you can root for, even when he’s working outside the confines of the law. Fox’s villain is unhinged and completely contemptible and the actor is clearly having a blast with it. As gruesome as the film gets – and it goes well beyond what its PG-13 rating might suggest – it’s as good at making you hate its villain as any film in recent memory. Picasso is so loathsome that awaiting his comeuppance at the hands of our hero is a major reason that “Alex Cross” entertains as much as it does. It’s a prototypical game of “cat and mouse” between these two characters, but the actors sell it to the best of their ability.

The film is best enjoyed with expectations at ground level. It’s all empty calories, but there’s enough of a foundation here that I could see quality sequels coming from a better creative team. In that respect, this film is a wasted opportunity that could have aspired to more. But it doesn’t and that’s what makes it kind of charming. It doesn’t concern itself with things like “plot” or “dialogue,” instead choosing to be a knuckleheaded entry-level thriller with patches of something more. And that seems to be a choice that the filmmakers were content in making. As Hollywood has proven time and time again, no one is above making a bad movie – and I’m certainly not above enjoying one.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: October 19, 2012
Studio: Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate)
Director: Rob Cohen
Screenwriter: James Patterson, Kerry Williamson, Marc Moss
Starring: Tyler Perry, Matthew Fox, Edward Burns, Rachel Nichols, Jean Reno
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence including disturbing images, sexual content, language, drug references, and nudity)