Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Cinema File #6: "Alex Cross" Review

I've reviewed a few movies recently that have defied my initially low expectations and turned out to be much better than I thought they would be. Actors I have always dismissed have surprised me by not sucking, and even a whole franchise of shitty movies redeemed itself with its lowest budgeted feature yet. At one point, I even wondered if I was beginning to lose my ability to tell good movies from bad. Alex Cross did not surprise me at all. Looking back on it, I think the final product is pretty much exactly as I expected it to be, both in what I was expecting to like, and what I think we were all expecting not to like. The end result is a decent, middle of the road action crime thriller stymied by stale cliches, with one of the best villains I've seen this year, and one of the most lackluster heroes.

The story follows detective and psychology professor Alex Cross as he leads a taskforce on the trail of a merciless assassin nicknamed Picasso, who starts out hunting the subordinates of a wealthy real estate magnate, but moves on to hunting Cross and his team when they get in the way of his mission. The movie follows a fairly standard and predictable genre format with few surprises, and the plot pretty much takes a backseat to the private war between the two main leads, Tyler Perry's Cross and Matthew Fox's Picasso. As far as the story goes, there was really only one legitimately effective moment that I did not see coming, which is effective due to the movie being so otherwise tame up to that point, and the shift in energy and tension afterwards is pulled off relatively well. The rest of the plot is pretty much paint by numbers action thriller. Nothing special, but not obviously bad in any way.

If there's any reason to see this movie, it's for the performance of Matthew Fox as the villain. He's credited as Picasso based on a nickname given to him for his signature of leaving charcoal drawings of his victims at crime scenes, but we never learn his real name or that much about what motivates him, beyond an overriding sadomasochism and a tendency to become obsessed very easily, either with his own physique, his job, and later, with his personal vendetta against Cross. Every moment Matthew Fox is onscreen turns this movie from mediocre to exceptional. Just on a physical level, what Fox did to his body for this movie might not quite be to the level of Christian Bale in The Machinist, but it's close. I barely recognized him after watching the guy for six seasons on Lost, and just the fact that he read this script and was willing to go this far to make the role just that much better really illustrates his commitment as an actor. His role is by far the best part of the film, and every time he shows up, I just wish he was in a better one.

As much as it might be easy and tempting to rag on Tyler Perry's performance and make a bunch of Madea jokes in the process, I honestly can't say that he was terrible. He's a competent actor and not entirely unbelievable as an action hero, or at least better in that context than you might think. Still, it's pretty clear from the beginning that he was miscast, and if I didn't know who he was or why the producers might have thought he'd be a box office draw, I'd question the decision to have him in the movie. With the possible exception of the final fight scene, there are huge swaths of this movie where it feels like he just doesn't want to be there. He looks uncomfortable in the role of a bad ass to the point where I found myself rooting for the much more charismatic bad guy, who seemed to have more on the ball than any of the people chasing him. That being said, in the lighter moments, joking around with his partner or spending quality time with his family, he was perfectly fine, as if he thought he was filming two different movies. If anything, I think this might just have been too soon for Perry to try something like this. Had he cut his teeth on something a little smaller scale to develop his action thriller bonafides and come to this in a few years, this might have been a more solid movie. As it stands, he's the weak link in the proceedings, and considering not only that he's the lead, but also that he's taking over a role from Morgan Freeman and beat out Idris Elba for the part, it makes the experience feel like a lot of wasted potential.

And it wouldn't be as bad if the movie didn't go out of its way so much to make Perry's Cross appear to everyone else around him as so smart and kick ass without ever really demonstrating it. It's been a while since I've seen either Kiss The Girls or Along Came A Spider, but if I remember it correctly, I don't think everyone in that movie who wasn't Morgan Freeman was constantly talking about how awesome Morgan Freeman's character was. While he doesn't come off as incompetent by any means, Cross as portrayed here doesn't really come off as the genius everyone's saying he is. Matthew Fox's assassin is far more well developed, to the point where when people fear him or talk about him as a person that is threatening, you believe it. By contrast, Cross is set up as the sort of peaceful mental ying to Fox's violent physical yang, and when it comes time for the scene where he shows off his intellect and skill at profiling in a dramatic monologue, it just comes off like he's pulling shit out of his ass and you don't believe any of it. This all builds to the final moment where you must believe that Cross can beat this merciless assassin on his terms, in an actual fight, and it just comes off as implausible and ridiculous. He's practically a Mary Sue, which is bad enough in written form, where you can't actually watch the character fail to live up to the impossibly high standard in real time.

Overall, there isn't enough about this movie that I can get passionate about either positively or negatively. It's not poorly made from a production or writing standpoint, but it never strives to be anything unique or better than a million other movies you've seen that are just like it. One great character does not make a great movie, as much as I wanted it to. Evidently the sequel to this movie, based on a book apparently called Double Cross, has already been greenlit with Perry committed to reprising the role. Maybe by then he'll fit into the character a little better. For what we get with Alex Cross, I wouldn't waste a night at the theater, but it's probably a safe bet for a DVD rental down the road.

Oh, and if they're gonna make another one, they probably shouldn't call back Cicily Tyson. She plays Nana Mama, Cross' annoyingly opinionated sassy old grandma in the movie, but I didn't bother to mention her character in the review because it's only a small role and didn't amount to much. Probably want to drop it going forward, or at the very least, re-cast it. Hm, I wonder who Tyler Perry could get to play a sassy old black lady.
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