Alex Cross Review
Don't Ever Cross Alex Cross.
James Patterson's Alex Cross character is, in some ways, the psychological cops-and-serial-killers equivalent of Lee Child's ex-military investigator Jack Reacher. Tough, intelligent and experienced, Cross has been the focus of even more bestselling novels than Reacher and is yet another entity that filmmakers are desperate to cash in on and convert to a Big Screen equivalent. But, as we know from experience, the translation from page-to-screen of these book characters is considerably more hit than miss.
Even if you get the right actor (Alec Baldwin as Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October) he may not agree to do more than one film; even if you get the right actor to return (Harrison Ford as Clancy's Ryan in Patriot Games and then Clear and Present Danger) it may be hard to bottle lightning for a third time, and, before you know it, you’re rebooting the series twice (Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears and now Chris Pine, who'll hopefully bring it back to life with the upcoming “Jack Ryan”, a title in-line with Jack Reacher and John Carter and, erm, Alex Cross...). Hopefully Jack Reacher won’t go the same route, and Cruise will stick around for more than just one film, despite the outcry from fans of the character who still can’t see why Cruise works in the role; who still can’t see past the versatile star’s height.
You see, the same argument could have been used for Morgan Freeman’s characterisation of James Patterson’s Alex Cross back in the 1997/2001 movies Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. The then-60-year-old Freeman was probably at least 20 years too old for the role; these early books depicting Cross as a basket-ball playing homicide investigator who often got romantically involved with the female characters in the stories, and the respective Freeman adaptations having to remove almost anything physical from both the action and the romance.
Still, drastic changes notwithstanding, the biggest mistake was not the casting of Freeman – who, like Cruise, is a good enough actor to bring any character to life – but the decision to adapt the books in the wrong order. The second film adaptation – of the first and one of the finest of Patterson’s Cross thrillers, Along Came a Spider – was such an impotent little paint-by-numbers film that it nearly killed the series dead in the water.
The question is, will the casting of the younger actor Tyler Perry in this reboot guarantee the franchise a new lease of life, or will it just further reinforce the fact that it’s not the physical likeness that makes an actor a good choice, but actually his acting abilities? And will we all wish they’d stuck with the first choice for this reboot, the UK’s very own Luther, Idris Elba, or even just brought back Freeman in the role?
Well, as it turns out, the biggest problems with Alex Cross – the film – arise more from the script and the direction than from the casting. Sure, Tyler Perry may have little-to-no charisma, and may make Steven Seagal seem emotionally complex by comparison, but any damage done by his sleepwalking, zombified lead performance is simply buried under the rubble of a terrible script and some truly awful direction.
The story takes the character of Alex Cross into unfamiliar territory, even for those familiar with the books. Sure, Cross’s backstory has been mentioned in the books, and the book that this script borrows mostly from – simply titled “Cross” and not to be confused with “Double Cross”, “I, Alex Cross”, “Merry Christmas Alex Cross”, “Cross Fire” and “Cross Country” (I kid you not) – does involve the same antagonist, motivation and very loose framework, but the film is basically a reboot of the character for the Big Screen, introducing him for the first time, as it were, and showing what eventually makes him the character that Patterson’s readers know and love. The idea is that by the end of this story, Alex Cross will be the character first seen in the debut novel, Along Came a Spider.
It’s a good idea, following the same plan as the Bond reboot, the Star Trek reboot, and, undoubtedly, the upcoming Jack Ryan reboot too: restart the character from the beginning, refreshing his origins and setting the foundations for future chapters.
To that end we are introduced to “Detective Doctor” Alex Cross, a criminal psychologist and police lieutenant working in Detroit who gets assigned to a nasty serial killing case that involves a sadistic psycho-assassin who seems intent on slaughtering a trio of extremely well-guarded businessmen in the City. When Cross manages to derail the killer’s plans, however, the killer sets his sights on him instead.
Although ‘based on’ the novel Cross, this film adaptation is a mere shell of said book’s story, stripping the characters down to their absolute bare minimum – even Cross’s own arc in the film is little more than that explored in the book’s flashback scenes, whereas his antagonist’s arc is completely ripped out and we are left with just a standard psycho-killer. Even that could have worked, however, had all the ingredients been right, and had the direction been up to scratch.
But first the good...ish. Alex Cross, despite it’s almost universally abusive critical reviews, is not that bad. It’s just not very good. At all. It basically starts off pretty poorly (a thunderous foot chase only enlightens us as to the more physical side of Dr. Cross, and not his supreme intellect) but gives hints of promise (the Sherlock-like deduction-game he plays with his wife is clumsy but better than anything else we’d seen before), establishing the best character as easily being the angry grandmother, and introducing us to an interestingly wacky villain whose super-assassin missions get increasingly daring and would probably give Hitman’s Agent 47 a run for his money.
Whilst Cross himself and his pointless best buddy Tommy Kane (as well as their lacklustre respective love interests) are largely wasted, the colourful villain makes up for it somewhat, and, if you can make it to the halfway point in the movie, some shock events will likely reinvigorate your previously flailing interest. Trouble is, the film’s halfway over, and the ensuing crescendo-to-a-conclusion is less a big bang and more a feeble whimper. Characters randomly become wholly devoid of morals; things blow up; and the supposed super-sleuth psychologist Cross himself never actually figures anything out, instead relying on a) coercing and torturing informants and b) massive coincidence.
Then there’s the violence. Back before the theatrical release of Alex Cross, the director announced that he had decided to cut the movie to obtain a PG-13 rating. Now, I understand that this is the way of the future. Jack Reacher? PG-13. A Good Day to Die Hard? PG-13. Gangster Squad? PG-13. World War Z? PG-13. Hell, if a movie featuring a zombie outbreak can be censored for a PG-13 audience, then anything can. It really shouldn’t be the case – I’ve no idea how the remarkably brutal Reacher achieved its rating, and the ‘release an uncut version on Blu-ray’ plan for A Good Day to Die Hard is just a sorry state of affairs, and the mobster violence in Gangster Squad includes a guy being torn in half by two cars which, surely, can’t be suitable for children. But hordes of flesh-eating zombies taking over the world? What next, PG-13 cannibals? PG-13 tales of snuff movie making? Surely some themes and ideas just can’t fit into this anaemic rating no matter what cuts are made? Surely a film about violent serial killers who drug and torture their victims for pleasure is, by its very nature, adult material?
Welcome to the PG-13 world of Alex Cross, where the censors have inexplicably allowed themes and ideas to escape their supposedly ever-watchful eye, and only concerned themselves with how much violence is actually shown on-screen. People get their fingers cut off, about three arms are viciously broken across the runtime, in what I would describe as extremely imitable actions, and the killer uses a drug which paralyses his victims but leaves them feeling every sensation of his torturous actions. Does that sound like material you’d want children to be able to watch?
The only people that appear to win here are the producers, but they don’t realise the damage that they do to their product – and, in turn, not only their profits but their reputations – with a film that ends up being a mere shadow of its potential self, really probably unsuitable for its PG-13 audience but, at the same time, lacking the bite that would make adults think that they are watching a mature thriller about serial killers and criminal psychologist detectives.
At one point their Captain tells the veteran detectives, who have undoubtedly seen a thing or two in their time, to ‘prepare themselves’ for what they’re going to see at a crime scene because the victim was tortured for hours. When we do get to see the crime scene it looks like the torturing hasn’t even begun. This is entirely due to the rating, and it’s a shame we don’t even get to see the uncut sequences on Blu-ray to check out how they were originally supposed to play out.
Still, the rating doesn’t ruin the movie, Cohen does. The director behind a trio of reasonably enjoyable popcorn action-fests – the first Fast and the Furious, the first XXX movie and Stealth (which bombed so badly it derailed his directing career) – simply doesn’t know what he’s doing here. He’s familiar with action more than plot; character deletion rather than character development. His films will never be remembered for their plots or for their direction. Indeed it’s probably only the charisma of the actors (I’m looking at you Vin Diesel) which saved much of his work.
Here he simply doesn’t know what sort of Alex Cross tale to tell. He’s clearly seen a great deal of the new BBC TV show Sherlock, or even Guy Ritchie’s cinematic equivalent, and – for a second – he appears to be going down the route of “eccentric, super-intelligent detective”. But perhaps that was more on the cards when Idris Elba was lined up to play the character. Instead we get a character who is clearly more physical than psychological; whose methods are often clumsy and naive; and who does seem like everything his opponent taunts him over. Psychology 101? You don’t really want that from the great Alex Cross. And if Cohen was seeking to portray him as being on a learning curve, then he didn’t really do a very good job there either, because all we see is Cross ‘correcting’ one of his mistakes by going on his own torturing/killing spree. (Morgan Freeman’s Alex Cross is probably tracking down Tyler Perry’s Alex Cross as we speak to have a few quite words with him about his behaviour.)
If the main story arc and satellite character arcs weren’t flimsy enough as they were, and the film already butchered by PG-13 cuts, well then you’d still be put off by the actual camerawork in this piece. At one point the camera just starts shaking violently when Cross is on the phone, desperately trying to get information from back at the station. It’s stupid: “Hang on, we want to ramp up the excitement factor, let’s shake the camera wildly”. It gets even worse during the climactic battle as – perhaps to appease those pesky PG-13 censors – it’s difficult to make out anything that happens whatsoever. Between the apoplectic camerawork and the random slo-mo touches infused into the sequence you’ll struggle to resist the urge to look away from the screen. That’s not really a good urge when you’re talking about the grand finale.
Could a better lead actor have saved this film? Like Vin Diesel in Fast and the Furious and XXX, could a more charismatic lead at least have made it more watchable? Well, despite the fact that I didn’t hate Tyler Perry in the role (like I thought I would), I would still have to say yes. Why? Well, just take a look at Matthew Fox. The ‘hero’ from Lost really has transformed himself here into a positively creepy little psycho-killer. He’s like a cross between Robert De Niro’s Max Cady from Cape Fear and Christian Bale’s The Machinist.
In fact Fox’s performance is so well-nuanced and positively captivating (not to mention his ‘kills’ often being truly innovative) that you could easily end up rooting for him. And without the truly deplorable psycho-violence that a higher rating would afford the film, you’re left largely wondering whether he’s that much of a bad guy after all. What’s the difference between his character and the lead characters in Statham’s The Mechanic, for example? Or even Jean Reno’s great hitman, Leon? What? Is it because he’s a psycho? Well, wouldn’t cops think a hitman would have to be a psycho in any event – he kills people for a living after all – and without actually seeing him do anything particularly depraved, all the talk in the world isn’t really going to convince, is it?
Did I mention that Jean Reno is actually in this? Well he might as well not be, he is utterly wasted – as he has been ever since Ronin, which was quite a long time ago! So too Giancarlo Esposito (King of New York, Malcolm X) who gets an even smaller cameo. And Edward Burns as Cross’s partner? He makes his cop partner role in the unpleasant 15 Minutes look positively like a career high by comparison – that’s how utterly wasted he is here. Rachel Nicols (from GI Joe) literally disappears from the proceedings, as if she was never in them in the first place, and Scrubs’s John C. McGuinley doesn’t know whether to play this one straight, or wacky – and so goes for both – as the ostensibly bipolar Police Captain.
However, with a decent nemesis in Fox’s Picasso (who briefly refers to himself as “The Butcher of Sligo”, which was the character’s name in the book, Cross), all we really needed to probably save this entire sorry mess of a film is Idris Elba. Or basically someone slightly more charismatic than Tyler Perry. As stated, Perry isn’t terrible, he’s just a bit Seagal. In fact, I’d say even Seagal – whilst far from a capable actor – has more natural charisma than this particular well-built zombie, sloping his way through scenes with about as much passion as a bear on Prozac. It’s a shame because Perry isn’t an awful actor, he just doesn’t really draw you in.
We should be intrigued by Alex Cross; we should know he is the lead character; know what his expertise is; know what he is good for. Take, for example, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock: he is socially awkward, arrogant to the extreme, selfish and borderline psychopathic. And he treats anybody who cares about him like dirt. Yet we are shown that he is a genius, and we are in awe of his skills – so much so that we largely forgive him even the most unforgivable behaviour. Compare that to Perry’s Cross and we’re left wondering why we are watching him at all. Perry, in one scene of supposed insight, gazes off into the middle-distance to deliver a paper-thin, cliché-ridden character profile of the killer that they are tracking. Nobody questions it, nobody doubts it, but the trouble is that nobody watching it at home is going to buy it because Perry has no idea how to sell it. He just seems lost when attempting to show intelligence and inner contemplation, which are surely requisites for this particularly gifted criminal profiler?!
As the dust settles, and you wonder whether there was anything decent about the castrated and lobotomized thriller you’ve just watched – Alex Cross – and you find that the only thing you’ll likely remember is Matthew Fox’s creepy 0% body fat villain and the increasingly adventurous ways in which he kills his targets, probably the last thing you’ll want to hear is that they’re already working on a sequel – Double Cross. Author James Patterson has clearly been paid millions to say Tyler Perry is a better choice than Morgan Freeman. Who knows, if the next one is PG-13, maybe Patterson will be paid more millions to say how ‘his stories are better when they’re censored for a teen audience’. All I know is that, for this franchise to do justice to its source thrillers, we’re probably going to need a further reboot, with a decent director and a far better lead star.
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