Tyler Perry takes a chance in the middle of a career that he has established carefully as a writer, producer, director, and actor. Refreshing is this cinematic move. Refreshing, too, is Perry’s faith in his followers that they will support his decision to perform outside of the Madea box. Perry’s calculated risk affords him top billing, and a project advanced by a well-oiled advertising campaign; however, the movie rewarded him with a dismal box office disappointment. Not surprising because this newest venture directed by Rob Cohen (The Fast and The Furious; Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) has too many individual parts that fail to coalesce into a unified filmic ensemble.
Alex Cross is the creation of author, James Patterson, whose entourage of murder mysteries and crime thrillers features an African American homicide detective who is a psychologist with the skill of deduction that mimics Sir Author Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Film goers were introduced to Cross in Kiss the Girls (1997) and Along Came a Spider (2001) starring Morgan Freeman. In this installment set in Detroit, Michigan, Cross finds himself tackling a sadistic assassin and serial killer named Picasso (Matthew Fox), so-called because of the cubist drawings he leaves with his victims. Cross believes he can draw Picasso out by psycho-analyzing him; but his sole reliance on textbook psychology leads him to underestimate the extreme lengths Picasso will go to divert the detective from his deadly mission. Picasso snags Tommy Kane (Edward Burns), Cross’s longtime partner, in his lethal coil. Motivated by intense grief and loss, Kane and Cross launch a no-holds-barred man-hunt for Picasso.
Fox delivers Picasso with such an exaggerated passion that it pushes him into caricature; The Joker and The Riddler could be his big brothers. Burns works hard to establish his character’s loyalty to Cross and to make believable to the audience his commitment to his girlfriend Monica (Rachel Nichols).
Unfortunately, no one really cares. The most awkward performance, however, is by John C. McGinley who plays the forgettable Captain Richard Brookwell. Who is he again? As for costumes, someone should have advised costume designer Abigail Murray against her design of Cross’s long coat; it looks like two sleeping bags sewn together; and, who made the decision on those dreadful shotguns?
Puzzling, too, is the undeveloped character and confusing storyline of the likeable Pop Pop Jones (Simenona Martinez), a young African American female teenager in jail for murdering two people whom Cross visits. As they sit down to play chess, she says to him, “you can’t save everybody Dr. Cross,” and he replies, “I’m not trying to save everybody, just you.” The film does not fully explain Pop Pop’s function in the story.
Alex Cross is a good enough story, but painful to watch are talented actors working with a script that compromises their efforts. Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson wrote the screenplay that gives generous back story to Cross. During an October 12 interview with Huffington Post Entertainment, Williamson remarks, “What I really wanted to do was an origin story, and introduce [Cross] to a new audience. I knew that it would invite comparisons to Morgan Freeman, and I kind of wanted to pull away from that.” Williamson does more than ‘pull away’; the screenwriter creates a vehicle that firewalls a smidgen of thought of Freeman thereby generating a push/pull viewing experience. Perry portrays very well the homicide detective Williamson draws in the screenplay: the “caring, principled [and] loving family man” whose strong belief in himself and his skill are bolstered by the love of a resilient extended family. Herein resides the strength of Alex Cross and a demonstration of Perry’s promising talent as an actor outside of Madea‘s workshop.
Perry’s impressive display of grief when blindsided by tragedy clearly marks not only the gravity of the moment; also, his display sets up the question, “how will the detective present his anger to his family?” Respectfully, the movie pauses to give the audience a private moment with the Cross family and, in this moment, we are party to Cross’s parenting skills as well as to his deference for his mother, Nana Mama (Cicely Tyson). The close-up brings to light the gentle acknowledgment of his daughter Janelle’s (Yara Shahidi) sorrow; Janelle’s acceptance of his tender gestures to console her reveals a daughter’s trust in her father. Cross’s tenderness, though, is transmuted to firm resolve as Nana Mama cautions him against taking revenge. She says with a piercing seriousness that is all Tyson, “Don’t you try placating me! […] Look at cha, self-appointed judge, jury and executioner!” Cross replies with sincere respect wrapped in a blanket of restraint, “Mama, either you step aside or you go back up those stairs, but you’re in my way.” We even are treated to the rituals of the Black church.
Cinematographer Ricardo Della Rosa contrasts these intense moments with lighthearted interaction between family members. Cross grabs Nana Mama and hugs her as she prepares a meal. Under a smile she feigns annoyance that Cross has interrupted her in the kitchen. Another scene highlights a comfortable banter between Cross and his wife Maria, commendably played by Carmen Ejogo. Cohen’s direction of these playful relationships easily showcases a likeable Black family in everyday situations and thereby builds audience investment in the Cross household.
The domestic levity in the Cross family, however, is insufficient to bind the movie into a unified whole. Even the crimes themselves—as heinous as they are–fall short of holding the pieces together. Hopefully, Tyler Perry will find another action thriller in which to star; he’s good. Perhaps he should write his own.
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