From Bond to Bourne, bona fide action stars don’t get nearly enough credit for their acting, an injustice that has seldom been clearer than when watching Tyler Perry strain his way through “Alex Cross.” The cross-dressing “Madea” star seems out of his depth playing the hard-boiled detective made famous by Morgan Freeman in “Along Came a Spider” and “Kiss the Girls.” Even reliable action helmer Rob Cohen (“The Fast and the Furious,” “XXX”) seems to be off his game here. Though this potential franchise starter may not reposition Perry, solid business looks certain.
Loosely based on James Patterson’s “Cross,” the 12th novel featuring the Ph.D-carrying forensic psychologist, this clunky thriller clearly intends to recast the bankable Perry in a new light, especially on the heels of “Good Deeds” and his recent “Star Trek” cameo, both of which suggested untapped versatility. But it turns out the actor’s range is more limited than expected.
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Much of that is Cohen’s fault: The director acquits himself on the action front, but makes the simple procedural elements feel wooden and melodramatic, particularly in sappy home-life scenes. Perry clearly feels more comfortable with the latter, fawning over the news that his wife (Carmen Ejogo) is pregnant or playfully sparring with Cicely Tyson as his overbearing “Nana Mama” — moments that would be right at home in one of his own films. Here, they serve to set up a relatively generic backstory needed to justify the character’s aggressive transformation later in the film, as Perry strains to portray harder-edged ruthlessness.
But “Alex Cross” demands such heavy mettle, considering the dark crime the detective has been sent in to investigate: A sadistic assassin (Matthew Fox, scarily skinny) takes sick delight in torture-killing prominent white-collar types, making his way up the chain to French fat-cat Giles Mercier (Jean Reno, looking as though he swallowed not just the canary, but the entire pet store). Fox’s creepy contract killer, whose eclectic hobbies include bare-knuckle boxing and charcoal sketching, goes by multiple names, “the Butcher of Sligo” in the ring and “Picasso” to those who discover his drawings at the scene of the crime.
It doesn’t take a man of Cross’ intelligence — “a guy who can tell you had scrambled eggs for breakfast at 100 yards,” per partner Thomas Kane (Edward Burns) — to decipher the clues embedded in Picasso’s latest sketch, left beside the body of a woman he rather theatrically relieved of her fingers. Cohen seems to relish such scenes, lingering on Picasso’s obsession with pain: It’s implied that he suffers from congenital insensitivity to pain, a condition ideal for villains, as demonstrated in “The Girl Who Played With Fire.”
Considering how bland its eponymous hero is, “Alex Cross” demands a compelling foil to keep things interesting, and Fox proves plenty unsettling in a role more effectively cast against type than the lead. Still, between its tired blue-gray grittiness and primetime-TV production values, the film offers neither originality nor a clear sense that superior police skill has anything to do with the ensuing cat-and-mouse game. On one hand, Picasso seems to be baiting investigators to guess where he will strike next, but when they do, averting an assassination in a spectacular high-rise shootout, he loses his temper and starts targeting cops.
Basically, the plot functions to deliver Cross from one setpiece to the next, driving toward a climactic showdown in what remains of the decaying Michigan Theater. (Incentives shifted the story from D.C. to Detroit, until the tax breaks ran out, forcing the production to neighboring Cleveland.)