Review: “Alex Cross”

Tyler Perry stars in Rob Cohen's "Alex Cross," based on the character by James Patterson.If it weren’t for the ‘Scope cinematography, one could easily mistake “Alex Cross” for a rejected CBS pilot. Consider the main characters: a psychologist/homicide detective protagonist who has the ability to read body language with near-perfect accuracy, a partner who loves him like a brother, a heinously violent villain whose motivations aren’t made clear until the final 10 minutes, and a seedy corporate executive with a foreign accent who suspiciously won’t answer police questions. Come to think of it, the Eye Network would be wise to spin the film off into a show; it would fit in perfectly with their similarly senile-senior-targeted procedurals like “The Mentalist” and “CSI.”

And yet, the reason that those television shows–and the James Patterson paperback series upon which “Alex Cross” is based–appeal primarily to an older, artistically unadventurous audience is because they repeat the same thing over and over. Who but an elderly retiree with too much free time and progressively few braincells needs to watch this week’s upcoming episode of “NCIS” when it will be indistinguishable from last week’s? But it’s a slightly different story with film. Megaplex-goers haven’t encountered a straightforward, contemporary detective movie like “Alex Cross” in a great while; in fact, if one doesn’t count the considerably more complex “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” remake, there hasn’t been one since 2008’s “Righteous Kill.”

Thus, if one enjoys the basic good-guys-vs.-bad-guys storytelling of this type of film, then “Alex Cross” makes for a perfectly serviceable time at the theater, because it’s unique enough within the context of the current cinema landscape. Certainly, audiences have seen this film before–it’s as predictable as a Big Mac–but not recently enough for it be objectionable to those who are open to such a decidedly non-complex piece of pop-art. I personally found the movie’s simple nature to be a comforting change of pace after watching several more challenging works earlier in the week. The clear stakes of the conflict, the squirm-inducing violence of Matthew Fox’s antagonist (whose methods include finger amputation), and the outrageously manipulative score are all primally engrossing.

In addition to making television-caliber drama satisfying by condensing it to the self-contained, 100-minute arc of a film, “Alex Cross” also benefits from a cast that is a notch above what one would find on a CBS procedural. In a crossover role, funnyman Tyler Perry does a reasonably good job as the eponymous detective, focusing on Cross’ core nobility rather than his badassery (even when he goes off the reservation for a fleeting climax). Matthew Fox, who starred on a network drama that was far more artistically daring than any of the aforementioned ones (“Lost”), also breaks with his accepted image to play one creepy fellow, both in terms of his appearance (he’s somehow both gaunt and muscular) and his gruesome behavior. And while it’s unclear whether Jean Reno approached his character as a parody of the “shady businessman” archetype, he’s quite a riot in the role.

There’s no way to argue that “Alex Cross” is an ambitious piece of filmmaking, but that shouldn’t discredit its effectiveness as a pretenseless entertainment. Director Rob Cohen always ensures that the film’s construction is respectable, despite the limitations of the material, never trying to compensate for the elementary story with excessive visual flourishes. Cohen simply lets “Alex Cross” be what it is: a vehicle for cheap thrills. Whether that’s worth the price of admission is yours to decide.