The young woman who happened to be sitting next to me in the packed screening of “Alex Cross” wasn’t expecting to be seeing Tyler Perry in this kind of movie.
The detective drama based on novelist James Patterson’s series of popular crime-thriller fiction novels marks Perry’s first leading movie role outside of his comfort-zone circle of feel-good films that were made almost entirely under his writing, directing, producing control.
The towering 6-foot-5 actor is best known to moviegoers for his comedic, cross-dressing “Madea” romps, in which he gets riotous laughs for putting on muumuu-like dresses and wigs and saying and doing outrageously funny things.
So when the “Alex Cross” nitty started getting gritty on the big screen, about 10 minutes in, and it was obvious Madea and her muumuus weren’t going to materialize to lighten the mood, I noticed the twenty-something female next to me flinch during one scene of particularly vicious mano-a-mano brutality. A few minutes later, she had her hands over her face to keep from seeing something else even more disturbing.
This continued, off and on, for the rest of the movie. A couple of times, I heard her gasp. After the movie she said to me, “Wow—I thought this was going to be funnier.”
Now, it should be noted that the PG-13-rated “Alex Cross” doesn’t have much of anything that would push most viewers’ sensibilities outside what they’re accustomed to seeing on any crime-procedural primetime TV show. But for someone who’s never seen Perry in anything outside his usual roles, and who might wander in expecting to see him in another of those roles, “Alex Cross” (newly released on DVD and Blu-ray from Summit Entertainment) would be, indeed, a bit of a surprise.
Perry plays the title character, a Detroit police detective and psychologist on the trail of a sadistic contract killer, played by Matthew Fox. When Cross and his team, which includes his childhood friend Tommy Kane (Edward Burns), close in, the trigger man turns his stone-cold, psychopathic sights in a much more personal direction.
Cicely Tyson has a few scenes as Cross’ mother, and Jean Reno plays a billionaire industrialist that Cross deduces is the target at the top of the assassin’s hit list.
The Alex Cross character was previously played by Morgan Freeman in “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider.” This movie is a prequel, setting up the story and the character on a timeline before those movies took place.
As an actor, Tyler seems to have a few miles to stretch, to put it charitably, before he can think about backfilling any character that might later plausibly morph into Morgan Freeman. And here he’s completely eclipsed anyway by Fox. The former star of the TV series “Lost” lost almost 40 pounds to play the killer, a gaunt, grim, cadaverously scary human nightmare with a perverse appetite for inflicting pain.
Compared to Fox, Perry seems like a big ol’ puffy, friendly cupcake. That’s why it’s hard to buy him as the unhinged vigilante he becomes in the movie’s final act.
“Alex Cross” never quite rises above a run-of-the-mill cop-chases-killer-thriller flick, or much expands beyond would happen if an hour-long TV drama was given an extra half-hour to stretch. And it certainly isn’t the vehicle Perry needs to carry him to another stage of his career as a leading man.
As for branching out, Perry doesn’t have the dramatic heft to be believable as a rough-and-tumble action star—yet. Maybe he just needs some time to grow into that kind of role…and the kind of movie his “Madea” fans can bear to watch without wincing.
—Neil Pond, American Profile