Here's the freshest thing about the turgid crime thriller Alex Cross: Tyler Perry's name isn't the first trumpeted in a movie he's involved with, and he's noted only once in the credits. Not exactly a magnanimous gesture, just a by-product of letting someone else run the show for a change.
Swapping his Aunt Madea muumuu for a billowing topcoat, Perry defers first billing to his ill-fitting character Dr. Alex Cross, the sleuth created by novelist James Patterson and played twice more cerebrally by Morgan Freeman.
One could call this a stretch except that it snaps the first time Perry tries talking tough. He's 6-foot-5 but soft. The most impressive thing about the performance is that Perry manages to make chronically dull co-star Edward Burns appear interesting by comparison. Alex Cross is a jumble of cop flick cliches, directed sans inspiration by Rob Cohen, with a mean streak barely skirting an R rating.
Alex Cross is a prequel of sorts, set in Detroit where Cross plays detective before moving to Washington, D.C., and aging into Freeman. Even that doesn't make sense, considering the here-and-now iPads and automobiles on display. Either this movie should be set back a decade or two, or Freeman should have been fitted with a jet pack.
Cross is happily married with children, and has a loyal Nana (Cicely Tyson) to watch the kids and dole out advice when the situation turns nasty. There's a sociopath assassin running around calling himself the Butcher (Matthew Fox), but Cross dubs him Picasso for the charcoal sketches left at the scenes of crimes. Fox plays the role wild-eyed and alarmingly gaunt, with a taste for torture and the usual penchant for taunting his pursuers.
Fox offers a sadistic intensity deserving a better showcase than this for snipping off victims' fingers and cauterizing wounds with a butane torch.
This time it gets personal for Cross, as it does for most action heroes, when Picasso kills the cop's wife (Carmen Ejogo). There's a whiff of mystery to identifying who exactly is hiring Picasso to slaughter rich folks, a designer drug angle hastily divulged and dealt with in the final reel. Until then, Cohen keeps his actors busy gripping pistols while combing dark places, filmed in made-for-TV close-ups.
Perry's Cross has no identifying characteristics except the name another, better actor made famous in movies. Occasionally he'll gaze into the distance feigning some intuitive method of deduction, or declaring his urge for revenge. Their final showdown is a swirl of jitter-cam confusion, with cameras trained so tightly that it's hard to tell who's hitting who. Alex Cross is slipshod cinema hoping to capitalize on a star out of his orbit here.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.