(by Dustin Putman
Author James Patterson and his approximately twenty-five ghost writers may want to go hide in the shadows after they get a good look at "Alex Cross," a loose prequel to 1997's "Kiss the Girls" and 2001's "Along Came a Spider" that proves both egregiously overheated and, frankly, embarrassing. Taking over for Morgan Freeman as the title detective is Tyler Perry (2009's "Star Trek"), and if there's one black actor who probably shouldn't be filling the shoes of a stately icon like Freeman, it's the writer-director-star best known for putting on a wig, dress and fat suit to play the cantankerous Madea. Clearly cast in the hopes that he will be able to bring in his loyal fan base, this very different, decidedly more masculine role eludes Perry's grasp, the performer coming off too frequently as an amateur who can never quite sell the wide breadth of emotions his character is going through. He isn't exactly helped by director Rob Cohen (2008's "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor") and screenwriters Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson, the lot of them tossing together an inadvertently comic ode to 1990s-style serial killer thrillers, albeit watered-down to a PG-13 rating. Article continues below
Set before his character's work with the FBI, Dr. Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) is an intuitive Detroit police officer who gets pulled into the investigation of a multiple murder he somehow knows all about the second he arrives at the crime scene. How does he know, for example, that there was only one killer, or that a laptop has been stolen? Either he is psychic, or it's a case of a script needing to deliver exposition right away, logic be damned. Said lunatic, nicknamed Picasso (Matthew Fox), is a thin, muscled, wild-eyed psychopath who enters a boxing ring and then nearly kills his opponent after he gets punched in the face. The case becomes notably more personal once Picasso learns of Cross and begins messing with him, leading to the tragic shooting death of a family member. Devastated and outraged with vengeance, Cross makes it his mission to make Picasso pay.
Following a brief prologue documenting his and partners Tommy Kane's (Edward Burns) and Monica Ashe's (Rachel Nichols) capture of a perp, "Alex Cross" moves into a series of domestic and romantic scenes so cornball they immediately position the film as a sudsy soap opera. Alex's precocious daughter Janelle (Yara Shahidi) wants to play the piano, but Nana Mama (Cicely Tyson) saunters in to sassily tell her she better get her behind upstairs and finish her homework before dinner. Immediately after, wife Maria (Carmen Ejogo) arrives home with a sonogram and the news that she's eight weeks pregnant. Giddy but not allowed to tell anyone until Maria has passed the twelve-week mark, Alex sweeps into the kitchen and playfully attacks his ornery mom - that would be Nana Mama - while she sucks on a piece of the roasted chicken she's preparing. Meanwhile, Tommy and Monica's bedplay is interrupted when the former gets a call to a late-night crime scene. A heart-to-heart follows where they decide it's finally time to come clean to Alex - not just his colleague, but also his childhood best friend - about their relationship. Upon learning the news, Alex sternly tells Tommy their romance puts their team and his family into jeopardy. How so? That's one for the stars to figure out. If it weren't for an erotic-turned-horrific sequence where Picasso seduces the wealthy Fan Yau (Stephanie Jacobsen), ties her to the bed with her stockings, injects her with a poisonous agent and then proceeds to cut her fingers off, it wouldn't be off-base to confuse the movie's first half-hour as a feature adaptation of "The Young and the Restless." Then again, even the kinky murder would fit a daytime melodrama.
The rest of the picture is no better, if not worse, a whirlwind of laughable dialogue, unlikely and inexplicable plot developments, and a climactic fight set-piece so incomprehensibly shaky and indistinct in its shooting that it is impossible to figure out who's throwing which punch and what's happening overall. "I will meet his soul at the gates of Hell before I see him hurt another one of my family!" Alex Cross growls after one family member falls victim to Picasso's evil ways. Earlier on, the villain's blatant takeover of a high-security skyrise is met with the corporation's CEO uttering this humdinger: "Nonsense! This building is impenetrable!" Toss in one-liners that name-drop "muggles" and the Geico cavemen, as well as one falsely imprisoned murder suspect telling Alex, "You a head-shrinker, but you ain't shrinkin' nothin' of mine," and what potential viewers have is one of the most ineptly written films of the year.
Tyler Perry is clearly trying to break free of his own typecasting, but Alex Cross is a role that doesn't comfortably fit him. He appears ill at ease most of the time. As the sadistic Picasso, Matthew Fox (2008's "Speed Racer") has physically transformed his body and lost a nearly alarming amount of weight, but his motives are foggy and without any substantial development, his turn becomes little more than a bunch of intense, squinty-eyed glares. As Alex's partners, Edward Burns (2012's "Friends with Kids") and Rachel Nichols (2011's "Conan the Barbarian") are stuck with a love subplot that strikes as an afterthought by the second half and have nothing else to do. As for Cicely Tyson (2011's "The Help"), she apparently received the wrong memo and showed up thinking she was not only in a "Madea" movie, but taking over that role from Perry. God love her, she goes way over-the-top.
No one sets out to make a bad movie, but occasionally all the pieces fail to congeal and the outcome is a blundering mess. "Alex Cross" is such an instance, a thriller that doesn't know the first thing about creating suspense or intrigue. Attempts to make Cross and his family sympathetic are earnest, but would-be dramatic scenes are awkward and tonally off, too. With not one original element in its design, the narrative doesn't move forward so much as it meanders around, the whole enterprise overtaken by familiarity and lethargy. In the mid-'90s, "Alex Cross" would have still been spineless (especially when placed next to legitimately well-made, R-rated fare such as 1992's "Basic Instinct" and 1995's "Se7en"), but it would have been more at home. In 2012, it is akin to a relic of a different time, hopelessly out of place and clueless as to what made these kinds of movies popular to begin with.