Guest Movie Review: Alex Cross
If you think for a moment, it’s kind of strange that there hasn’t been a big screen adaptation of a James Patterson novel in over a decade. Patterson is the author of 77 novels and the holder of a Guinness Book record for most New York Times bestsellers with 63, and sales of his hardcovers account for one in every seventeen books sold in the United States. So there’s a better than average chance that your office mate or the girl you’re eyeing at the bar has read one of his works, perhaps from his Women’s Murder Club or Witch & Wizard series. One of Patterson’s most enduring creations is forensic psychologist and criminal investigator Alex Cross, the subject of eighteen books (with two more to be released within the next year) and easily Patterson’s most recognized character, one of the few such popular black protagonists in popular fiction. In 1997 and 2001, Morgan Freeman played the charactter in Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, but Hollywood hasn’t followed those up by adapting more Patterson novels into full length feature films, and maybe that’s not suprising. After all, it was about this time that black actors in LA became best known for comedy, and with few exceptions the box office was dominated by the likes of Chris Rock, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, performers ill-suited (at the time) to the gritty, serious world of Alex Cross. That environment has changed recently, with black actors seeming to finally shrug the cloak of comic relief, and performers like Idris Elba and David Oyelowo being taken seriously as dramatic actors, following in the footsteps of Denzel Washington instead of Eddie Murphy.
Yet the lead role of Alex Cross, vacant for more than a decade, goes to none other Madea herself, Tyler Perry. Since the early nineties, he’s made a name for himself in the industry seemingly out of sheer will: he’s created plays, TV shows and films that audiences have loved, and he’s done it practically by himself – a fact that sometimes gets lost in all the big wigs and earrings. It’s definitely nice to see such dedication to the arts rewarded with a high profile chance to prove himself. But the question has to be whether he can tackle a subject of somebody else’s creation, in this case a character designed by a bestselling author and under the direction of The Fast and the Furious’ Rob Cohen.
In what amounts to a reboot of the Cross film franchise, we’re introduced to our hero, a member of the Detroit Police Department who hunts down the worst monsters, rapists and killers the city can produce. Cross is a psychological wizard, able to deconstruct a crime scene and correctly determine the mindset of criminals in quick order. When he and his team are called in to a scene of a multiple homicide, he finds himself on the trail of a man known only as “The Butcher of Sligo” (Matthew Fox), a psychotic assassin with a complex mind and a penchant for inflicting a great deal of pain upon his victims. Quickly, Cross engages in a cat and mouse game with the Butcher, and the contest between the two forms the narrative basis for the movie as a whole.
It’s a good thing too, since Perry and Fox are about the only good things in this outing. In a pleasant surprise, Perry transitions nicely from ribald comedies and emotional dramas to this action/thriller in just the second movie in which he had no creative control (the first being JJ Abrams’ Star Trek) and the first in which he commanded a starring role. Playing well off of his castmates and controlling the scenes in which he is asked to take point, he shows a depth of emotion and talent of which I was unaware, and the studio did well to tap him to become the new face of their franchise. But as good as he is, Perry looks practically ordinary compared to Fox, whose Butcher is an amazing mix of brains, brawn and cruelty that will leave you eagerly waiting for his next appearance. From the opening scene of Fox breaking down an amateur MMA fighter to his dramatically scary mind games, we get an idea of how sadistic and evil his character is. Fox, who deserves a chance to be a legitimate movie star after ruling television in shows like Party of Five and Lost, might have found his ultimate audition tape; nobody could possibly watch his performance here and not be convinced that he’s ready for the big time. The secondary characters are far less impressive, though with the combined talents of Edward Burns, Cicely Tyson, Carmen Ejogo, Rachel Nichols and Giancarlo Esposito it’s obvious that they are not really the ones at fault. The only man who fails to live up to even the poor material is Jean Reno, who quickly proves just how far the mighty can fall.
The acting is about as good as things get – the rest is a mishmash of laziness and bad ideas piled upon poor implementation. The script was penned by the inexperienced Kerry Williamson and Marc Moss, a man who hasn’t penned a script since 2001’s Along Came a Spider, and their combined efforts reek of cheap tricks, clichéd ideas and mediocre dialogue. That the actors are even able to get away with much of what they say is a testament to their talents. Rob Cohen carries his share of the blame as well. The director shows no maturing from his earlier works. In fact has regressed in his ability to convey tension and drama in his work. Action scenes, once his area of expertise, are shot too closely to the action, and oh, and the shaky cam! Anyone who watches action movies these days knows how many directors will film scenes as though they were using handicams, resulting in unsteady, constantly “shaking” visuals. When they’re in expositional scenes, it’s merely annoying. When they make their way into the action sequences, it’s downright awful. Someday, directors will learn that shaky cam does not fool the audience into thinking that they’re part of the action. I don’t know a single person who is actually impressed by this method, and eventually I hope directors will realize it too, before they completely alienate their viewers.
But when you get past the bad direction, insipid dialogue, one-note secondary characters, clichéd story, and unrecognizable action, what might be most painful thing in Alex Cross is the excessively shoddy-looking special effects. It’s plainly obvious that despite the movie being a major Hollywood production, the studio has spent more money on marketing than actually making sure their movie looked good. Most of the time, during foot and car chases and character-developing scenes, it’s not as noticeable. But during a couple of the more action-oriented moments towards the end, you can plainly see where Cohen and the production company decided that they were going to spend the least amount of money possible. In that vein you get a CGI helicopter that looks like to be of the remote-controlled variety, dust kickup created by the most inexpensive film editing software available, and explosions that could have a home on a direct-to-DVD or 1980’s television movie, not one intended for international release in the new millennium. I don’t doubt that many of the people in the production of this movie believed that they were making something special; I don’t think however that the SFX team were given that same ideal to carry into their work.
Considering James Patterson’s success, I really had hoped for a hit from Alex Cross. But despite some truly impressive efforts from Perry and Fox, the rest of the movie feels as if put together by misogynistic amateurs. It’s a shame, especially since this is the second failure of a major bestselling author on the big screen (the first was February’s One for the Money), and you would think with the amount of built-in publicity a book-to-film adaptation carries, that the studio would at least put the effort in to finance a competent production. A successful Alex Cross could have helped raise the profile for black actors in Hollywood, creating projects for the talented likes of Michael Ealy, Chadwick Boseman, John Boyega and Michael B. Jordan. Instead it sets them back a step, as obviously the folks in charge had no faith in its leading man to dedicate enough resources to make this movie work.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer, movie enthusiast and Foursquare Mayor living in Boston. He posts his regular film reviews at Hello, Mr. Anderson. You know, just in case you’re interested.