The notable commercial implications of Rob Cohen’s Alex Cross are twofold: It’s the first film wherein Tyler Perry has led a cast that he isn’t also writing for and directing, and also serves as a reboot of a potentially hugely profitable franchise, that of the series of novels by James Patterson focusing on the titular detective and forensic psychologist. Considering both Perry and Patterson’s reputations as media barons, Alex Cross comes to theaters with the distinct timbre of a merger rather than a singular entertainment.
The all-too-familiar facets of popular action entertainments are as plain as day in the film. Explosions, car crashes, implied savagery, shootings and shoot-outs, brutal beatings and cleverly impossible tactics are strewn across the screen, and at the center is a rather by-the-books game of cat and mouse between the eponymous hero (Perry) and an ultra-sadistic killer for here known only as the Butcher, played by an ultra-hammy Matthew Fox. Aided by longtime best friend and partner Tommy Kane (Ed Burns), Cross’s hunt through Detroit for the Butcher turns toward vengeful obsession when, thwarted during a planned assassination of tycoon Leon Mercier (Jean Reno) and his minions, the Butcher tortures and slaughters Kane’s girlfriend, fellow agent Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols), and merely kills Cross’s pregnant wife, Maria (Carmen Ejogo).
Based very loosely on Patterson’s Cross, the script suggests a clattering collision of Perry’s preachy ideals and the shallow, cowardly, and violent theatrics that have come to define Cohen’s filmography thus far. Expositional and often self-serious to the point of genuine awkwardness, the dialogue is never as haltingly unconvincing as when it’s attempting to give some approximation of Cross’s essential looseness and good humor. As the film rushes toward Cross’s climactic face-off with the Butcher and his mysterious employer, the bounty of characters that Williamson and Moss introduce throughout the film sadly take on the roles of dull, intermittently strong-armed supporters or dangerous, dumb non-believers.
Thankfully, at least two of the characters are played by excellent actors, namely Cicely Tyson, as Cross’s salty Nana Mama, and Giancarlo Esposito, as a Detroit crime lord with which Cross has a history. Perry’s scenes with Tyson and especially his scene with Esposito ring of genuine connection, which is to say that no matter how earnest and stunningly wrongheaded these exchanges are, the characters do feel as if they have history and real knowledge of one another. And though Perry is, per usual, an abysmal dramatic performer, aggressively feigning looseness and intellect in ways that only highlight a certain basic insecurity about his own looseness and intellect, his very presence gives the film a unique, if distinctly unsure, tone.
As unsteady as the tone is, the film shows a consistently repugnant attitude in its thematic undercurrents. There’s something unmistakably misogynistic and irksome about the way that the Butcher’s most ruthless, painful exterminations are saved for women, and one can’t help but notice how the righteous Cross refers to souls and Hell while the Butcher only refers to physical pain and Confucius. But the film proves to be truly careless and hypocritical in its view of violence, particularly in the sense that Cross’s vigilantism is seen as unquestionably good. Neither the script nor Cohen’s direction suggest any sense of moral struggle in the frankly criminal lengths that Cross goes to in his pursuit of the Butcher, and when Nana brings up this fact, Cross feels obliged to more or less tell her to shut up and stay out of his business. His furious reaction is portrayed as an affirmation, rather than a condemnation, of his brutish vengefulness.
This is somewhat surprising new ground for Perry, but it doesn’t seem to be a decision made out of any pure impulse. Indeed, Alex Cross is calculated in every single movement of its mechanism to appeal to the action-driven male demographic that’s proven absent in Perry’s audience thus far. Kiss the Girls, which saw Morgan Freeman as an older, wiser, and humane Cross, isn’t a great movie, but it moves with an easy finesse, considers the burdens of its genre, and has the charisma of a pulpy detective story. Alex Cross, on the other hand, sees detective work as merely a portal through which to dispense one’s own personal, infallible sense of justice, rather than one serving a public good, and takes no toll of the real consequences of such thinking. Not long into the film, Perry’s Cross calms a worried target not to overthink, that he is “just trying to catch a bad guy.” If only.