Review: ‘Alex Cross’ seems artifically engineered for franchise success

This weekend, Summit Entertainment is going to try to launch a new franchise with Tyler Perry starring as “Alex Cross,” a character created by publishing juggernaut James Patterson, in a film directed by Rob Cohen, who directed the first “The Fast and the Furious,” kicking off one of the few reliable franchises Universal has at the moment.  This is a perfect storm of franchise-friendly energy, and with the announcement this week that they are already in development on “Double Cross,” the follow-up film, it seems like Summit is about as confident as a company can be.

And why not?  Tyler Perry has built one of the most reliable brand names in the business, made even more remarkable by the fact that he’s done it with very little conventional press support.  Perry is, like Kevin Smith, someone I respect for their accomplishments even if I’m not crazy about the work they produce.  Perry worked hard to put together his media empire, and he targeted one audience aggressively, a tactic that has paid off in what looks like a sort of blind faith agreement between him and the people who see his films.  When they walk up to the ticket window, I’ll bet money that nine times out of ten, they ask for a ticket to “Tyler Perry.”

James Patterson is the same way, but in the publishing world.  If you include every book that has his name on the cover, whether he wrote it solo or with someone, he’s published a gobsmacking 107 books at this point.  He is quite literally an assembly line.  Stephen King with an Igloo cooler full of Red Bull and meth couldn’t match that output.  That’s preposterous.  And of those, 18 of them are books about Alex Cross.  He is an FBI agent, a police detective, a private-practice psychologist, and absolute Kryptonite to any woman unfortunate enough to be part of his love life.  He’s personally stopped more serial killers in the last 20 years than have actually existed in the last 20 years.  He is one of those characters who has put through the wringer just so the series can continue to exist.  “Cross” was something like the 12th book in the series, a reinvention of the character to some degree, and it was purchased by Summit as an opportunity to reboot the character on film.

After all, Morgan Freeman played him twice in “Kiss The Girls” and “Along Came A Spider,” and those were fairly standard issue post-“Se7en”/post-“Silence Of The Lambs” serial killer thrillers.  Freeman didn’t play the character as a superhero, but he was one of those always-right cops whose hunches allowed him to seem almost omniscient.  They felt like a perfect fit for Paramount at the time, and while I wouldn’t call either film particularly good, they are painless programmers.  Cross never seemed like a strong enough character to hang an entire franchise on, though, and I’m sort of amazed how much life Patterson has wrung out of him so far.

Rob Cohen seems like a good fit for this material because he’s one of those filmmakers who has had a few hits, some big bombs, and a filmography full of forgettable near-misses.  There are filmmakers whose work feels like it is effortless, like they speak film fluently, and then there are filmmakers whose films reflect the profound effort it took to wrestle them onto the screen.  That’s Cohen.  There’s nothing relaxed or natural about his voice as a filmmaker.  He directs with a sort of head-down determination, and even his best moments still feel labored.  I can’t think of many filmmakers who would jump at the chance to do something as cookie-cutter as “Cross,” and that’s when you call in Cohen.

What he’s made is basically a perfect example of studio filmmaking in the age of the franchise, a pilot episode of a series that could easily chug along, inoffensively delivering exactly what you expect each and every week.  Or every year, I guess, depending on how fast they can crank these out.  With Tyler Perry just starring instead of writing and directing as well, he can probably get a number of films out of this series without burning himself flat.  The main question I have, even after seeing the film, is whether audiences will accept Perry in the role or not.  If I’d never seen anything else he made and this was my introduction to him, as it may well be for many viewers this weekend, I would be puzzled about why they cast him.  He’s a substantially sized guy, but he does not carry himself like a bruiser.  He is surrounded by supporting players like Edward Burns and Rachel Nichols as members of his team or Giancarlo Esposito as a local criminal or Jean Reno as a businessman who is in danger or John C. McGinley as the police captain running things or Cicely Tyson as his mother, and everyone does exactly what they were hired to do, playing exactly the cliche they were hired to play.  Ultimately, the film lives or dies based on the tension between Perry and Matthew Fox, the hired killer whose time in Detroit leads to a deadly showdown between the men.  Fox has pushed himself to a sort of physical extremity, all coiled strength and chiseled muscle, and he plays his character as a bug-eyed twitchy weirdo.   Even when he’s supposed to be overcome by rage, though, Perry has trouble cranking himself up to the same kind of energy that Fox seems to generate, and I’m not sure I buy him as a threat.

When I call this a pilot episode, that’s not even a negative judgment.  It’s just a description.  Much of what we see in this film is about getting Cross to a certain place where he can start having his “real” adventures, and there’s a lot of the run time that is devoted to moving puzzle pieces into place.  As the film begins, Cross is a Detroit police detective who works with two younger cops, Tommy (Burns) and Monica (Nichols), who are romantically connected outside of work.  Cross is happily married with two kids and a third on the way, and his mother, Nana Mama (Tyson) is around to offer up wisdom and support.  So of course, that status quo has to be challenged.  First, Cross is offered a chance to move to Washington DC to become an FBI profiler.  He’s proud of his ability to profile the people they chase, and so when Picasso (Fox) begins to kill his way through a list of targets in Detroit, Cross is convinced he can hunt the guy down and stop him.

The movie is frequently silly precisely because of how seriously it plays the material, and you have to wonder if it would have benefitted from having tongue a little more firmly tucked in cheek.  Edward Burns seems to have been cast in an effort to find a partner with less screen charisma than Perry, and the implication at the end of the film that these two are going to continue to be paired at the FBI is more of a threat than a promise.  The over-elaborate set pieces where Picasso tries to kill his various targets are well-staged, which makes it doubly frustrating when the close-quarters combat is so poorly shot.  Once again, shaking the camera takes the place of showing us what actually happens in a fight, and I would argue that it’s so egregious here, so visually incoherent, that it renders the final fight between Cross and Picasso impossible to follow.  Maybe they’re hiding the discomfort Perry felt in the fights.  Maybe they’re trying to disguise the stuntmen.  Whatever the case, it is a mess, and since nothing else in the film is shot with that same aesthetic, it stands out.

I’m curious to see if Summit’s gamble pays off for them.  These are not wildly expensive movies, and if they can make them all for a price, it could be yet another cash cow for all involved.  But as a viewer, there was nothing here that would compel me to return for another look or to anticipate a second film.  It is by the numbers, familiar, and it’s hard to remember more than a few images even a few days after seeing it.  To be fair, I missed the start of the film thanks to LA traffic, but the film is such a familiar, recognizable shape that as soon as I sat down, I felt caught up and had no trouble with any of the various story threads.  This will be a test to see if Perry’s audience follows him in something where he’s not playing the same part they’ve seen from him so many times before, and if Patterson’s publishing success can finally be translated into something equally successful as a movie.   I may not have cared for it, but someone’s been making Perry and Patterson rich, so I may not matter as far as “Alex Cross” is concerned.

“Alex Cross” opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.