Tyler Perry is a man who has made a fortune and built an entertainment empire out of humiliating himself. Perry probably doesn't look at it this way, but he has enjoyed his greatest success with his series of movies and plays featuring his signature character Madea, a meddling, sharp-tongued, gun-toting, reefer-smoking grandma, played by Perry himself in unflattering drag. Madea has played a major role in making Perry a wealthy and powerful man, but it's not hard to see he's developing mixed feeling about the character; audiences may like her, but critics don't, and lately Perry had been particularly eager to show he's not just a wacky guy in a dress, first directing a thoughtful screen adaptation of Ntozake Shange's celebrated play For Colored Girls, and then casting himself in a serious leading role as a successful businessman in Tyler Perry's Good Deeds. Now Perry is determined to reinvent himself in a whole new way; apparently wanting to remind us he's a genuine movie star, he transforms himself into an action hero in the new thriller Alex Cross.
If going from a crazy old woman to a police detective who is equal parts brain and brawn seems like a big jump for Perry, that's roughly the same sort of reboot that the character of Alex Cross gets in this film. Cross is the protagonist of a series of crime novels by author James Patterson, and two of his stories were previously brought to the big screen in the movies Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, with Morgan Freeman playing the detective and psychologist. While Cross was no shrinking violet as played by Freeman, director Rob Cohen and screenwriters Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson have clearly decided to make their titular character tougher and more physical in this picture, and as interpreted by Perry, Alex Cross is a hyper-observant and brilliantly analytical cop who also knows how to take down a bad guy by force, and in this story he's here to create a criminal psychological profile and kick butt -- and he just got done with that profile.
In the film, Cross and his team -- partner and best friend Tommy Kane (Edward Burns) and pretty rookie Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols) -- are called in by police chief Richard Brookwell (John C. McGinley) after a wealthy woman (Stephanie Jacobsen) and her bodyguards are found brutally murdered in her Detroit mansion. The woman was killed by a psychotic killer (Matthew Fox) who is targeting the city's wealthy elite (who knew Detroit still had so many of them?), leading up to Leon Mercier (Jean Reno), a French business tycoon with plans for reinventing the Motor City. Cross methodically pieces together the clues and successfully puts his team on the trail of the killer, but it's clear Mercier knows something he's not telling the police, and the ante is upped when the killer starts making it personal -- first by torturing and killing Ashe, who is in a relationship with Kane, and then by assassinating Cross' pregnant wife.
From the opening ambush designed to start the movie in fifth gear, it's clear that Tyler Perry is just not the right actor for the role of Alex Cross -- while he lost thirty pounds before shooting began, he still looks a bit too doughy to be suitably heroic, and though he's clearly trying hard to seem properly intimidating and cool, the effort is ultimately what sinks him. Very little of what his character does seems to come naturally to Perry, and it's obvious we're seeing someone acting most of the time, rather than watching an actor who inhabits the role.
Perry fares better showing off Cross' skills as an analyst than as a tough guy, and he's often charming in the scenes with his wife and family, which put him on more familiar ground and suggest he'd do well in a thoughtful family drama. But most of Alex Cross demands he play a cop who can fight as hard as he can think, and that's thoroughly out of Perry's wheelhouse. In all fairness, most of the cast doesn't do much better, particularly Edward Burns in a one-note turn as Cross' wisecracking partner, Matthew Fox as the twitchy, over-energetic lunatic, and Cicely Tyson, who is given criminally little to do as Alex's persnickety mother-in-law. The movie's biggest failing is the flat, unimaginative script by Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson, and the by-the-numbers direction from Rob Cohen. Alex Cross often plays like a made-for-TV movie designed as a pilot for an ongoing series, spending as much time setting up the back story of the characters as it does the ongoing narrative, and the plot is full of holes, barely justifying many of the action sequences and failing to deliver a satisfying wrap-up at the end. Cohen throws in the requisite number of explosions and fistfights, shot with predictably shaky cameras, but the movie is curiously lacking in energy, and wears out its welcome long before it comes to a close. Tyler Perry's bid to reinvent himself like Bruce Willis or Matt Damon in Alex Cross is ultimately a failure, but if it's any consolation to him, he's hardly the only reason this film is not worth your time.