If there was ever a reason to see a prequel of novelist James Patterson’s Alex Cross in his salad says, it’d be the chance to see Morgan Freeman reprising the FBI profiler from preposterous but very involving thrillers “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider” in young-again makeup. Instead, it was someone’s idea to see if Tyler Perry could handle the role, which should’ve been Perry’s time to prove himself and convince us that he could be a leading man or even an action star. After “Alex Cross,” it’s not happening, so Mr. Perry will be back to writing his tonally inconsistent movies and TV sitcoms in no time.
In this origin story of sorts (based on Patterson’s 12th book, “Cross,” in his series), Dr. Alex Cross wants to make the transition from Detroit police detective and psychiatrist to an FBI profiler. Everything’s going his way, capturing perpetrators, counseling prisoners, and being graced with the news that his wife Maria (Carmen Ejogo) is eight weeks pregnant. That is until a sick, torture-happy hired assassin (Matthew Fox), who calls himself “the Butcher,” kills a female higher-up by paralyzing her and then cutting off her fingers. Based on the killer’s trademark of leaving a charcoal sketch at the scene of his handy work, he is dubbed “Picasso” and diagnosed a “stimulus seeking, sociopathic narcissist” by Cross. But as soon as Cross and his team (Edward Burns and Rachel Nicols) aim to foil Picasso, they all find themselves, and their loved ones, on the supervillain’s hit list.
Carelessly directed, clunkily and generically written, and poorly paced, “Alex Cross” varies from a standard-issue TV movie to an incompetent hack work, but either way, it’s boring and worthless as thrillers go. Neither director Rob Cohen (“The Fast and the Furious” and “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”) nor screenwriters Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson help the situation. The Harvard graduate at the helm pathetically tries to fake the tension via shaky-cam when a secretary at the police department relays directions from her computer desk, and the mano-a-mano fight between Alex and Picasso in an abandoned movie theater is so junkily shot that we’re robbed of any thrill or satisfaction. Every actor gets saddled with laughable dialogue, but the most embarrassingly melodramatic line goes to Perry: “I will meet his soul at the gates of Hell before I let him take a person that I love from me.”
Taking on the eponymous role, Perry goes out of his comfort zone, but he’s more credible in drag as his infamously mouthy, gun-toting Madea creation. He’s no Morgan Freeman and he’s hard to buy as a police detective, so when having to wield a big gun or turn into Charles “now it’s personal” Bronson mode, it’s hard not to giggle. One exception: the man can cry real tears when he must grieve. As vicious, tatted killer Picasso, Fox has clearly stuck to the Medifast diet and P90X workout, starving and shredding himself into a lean, ripped killing machine, but he’s also on an all scenery-chewing diet. Hamming it up to the rafters, Fox comes off as more of a sneering, crazy-eyed weasel with facial tics and 0% body fat than a menacing psychopath. Apparently, his Picasso is so slick he can escape from an elevator and come out of a sewer hole.
The supporting cast is handed no favors either. In the sidekick role of Alex’s childhood buddy and fellow detective John Sampson, Burns could play this part in his sleep but his banter with Perry is as dead as a corpse. His so-called secret romance with Nichols holds no weight either. Cicely Tyson, as Nana Mama, keeps most of her dignity intact when she’s not hassling Alex like one of Perry’s ball-busting characters (“Boy, get your feet off my bench!”). Finally, John C. McGinley, Jean Reno, and Giancarlo Esposito all go to waste.
The overly familiar plot meanders, threatening anyone watching to nod off, and it’s hard to care about Alex’s borderline-ESP tactics figuring into the investigation or his grief-turned-revenge M.O. Urgency and suspense dissolve faster than an ice cube in a hot drink; the one female torture scene tries to be exploitative within PG-13 restraints; and the explosions are gratuitous and overblown. And just as we think the movie is happily coming to a close, Alex assures us and his partner that “it ain’t over.” Cue the stupid, slapped-on, unnecessary plot twist that doesn’t make a lick of difference.
An inept thriller that can’t be taken seriously but isn’t even bad enough to have fun with, “Alex Cross” can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Maybe in the sequel of this prequel, Alex can play cat-and-mouse with Madea. Now there’s an idea that should get the green light!
101 min., rated PG-13.