Friday, October 19, 2012

Alex Cross: Impossible to bear

Alex Cross (2012) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, and somewhat generously, for considerable nasty violence, disturbing images, profanity, sexual content, drug references and nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.19.12

I realize James Patterson writes trashy airport novels, but he still doesn’t deserve this sleaze-wallow.

After finding the tortured and maimed body of a wealthy young woman, Alex (Tyler
Perry, right) and his partner, Tommy (Edward Burns), uncover an unusual clue: a
charcoal sketch that is a gory nod to Picasso. Alex soon will notice a clue in this
drawing: a truly ridiculous hint that will help them anticipate carnage to come.
Director Rob Cohen signals his intentions right from the start, with a prologue that finds our hero and his Detroit Police Department colleagues pursuing a perp through a dilapidated slum building: ear-splitting gunshots, battered down doors, pell-mell chases, smash-cut editing and cockeyed camera angles.

Forget all about the thoughtful profiler and methodical, imperturbable Alex Cross played so well by Morgan Freeman in 1997’s Kiss the Girls and 2001’s Along Came a Spider. That Alex Cross doesn’t exist any more; as re-imagined by Cohen, scripters Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson, and star Tyler Perry, our man of science and sociology has morphed into John Shaft.

The results aren’t pretty.

Cohen made his rep on noisy, brain-dead action thrillers such as The Fast and the Furious and xXx: unapologetic eye-candy that reveled in audacious stunts and testosterone-fueled characters who traded dialogue in words of one syllable. Nothing wrong with that, of course, since we viewers understood that such films are the live-action equivalent of Road Runner cartoons.

But Cross exists in the real world — at least to some degree — and Perry tries to play him (during the rare quieter moments) as devoted husband, loving father and loyal partner. But those fitful efforts at emotional authenticity are wholly at odds with the nasty, brutal storyline into which Cross gets dumped in this film: a kitchen-sink amalgam of elements more or less suggested by Patterson’s Cross, the 12th novel in his ongoing series (19 thus far, with No. 20 due next year).

Thing is, I can’t imagine Patterson’s fans will be happy with this film. Names and relationships have been altered, behavior and motivation are wholly different ... often for no reason. Why, for example, would Moss and Williamson change the name of Cross’ childhood best friend from John Sampson to Tommy Kane (played here by Edward Burns)? Is it that important to leave clumsy screenwriter footprints all over Patterson’s original story?

The biggest change, however, concerns the depraved serial killer whom Cross faces: the Butcher (actually Michael Sullivan) in Patterson’s book, here re-christened Picasso (!) and played with chilling, scary-eyed credibility by Matthew Fox, late of TV’s Lost.

I’ll give Cohen credit for drawing such a memorable performance from Fox, who dropped 35 pounds in order to play this gaunt, heavily tattooed, bone-and-sinew pain freak. Fox’s Picasso is the stuff of nightmares: a believably unstoppable force who derives shuddery erotic pleasure from — as one example — snipping off a woman’s fingers with pruning shears.

Yes, this is that kind of story. Be advised. And while the pruning takes place off camera, we are later treated to the sight of bloody fingers in a bowl ... because Cohen is that kind of director.

Cross is, to a degree, the character’s origin story; Patterson’s novel begins with an extended flashback that depicts our hero’s early days as a Detroit police detective/psychologist, long before he becomes an FBI profiler. This glimpse into the past explains many of the details given as basic character background in the earlier Alex Cross books.

Moss and Williamson take that flashback as this film’s starting point; we meet Cross, his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and two children, and their feisty “Nana Mama” (Cicely Tyson), whose word is law in the attractive suburban home they share. At the precinct, Cross is teamed with Kane and Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols), the latter a young detective looking to earn her department rep.

Kane and Ashe are having an affair, which is completely contrary to department policy; Kane, genuinely concerned, warns that it could adversely affect Ashe’s career (no worries, apparently, about his career). No problem, she replies; that’s why we’re keeping it secret. Uh-huh, he answers, knowing full well that nobody can keep secrets from their senior partner, whose snap deductive skills could give Sherlock Holmes a run for his money.

Such trivial issues are put aside, however, when Cross and his team catch a multiple homicide at the home of a wealthy, hedonistic Asian woman whose carnal pleasures include betting on mixed martial arts cage matches. Her three bodyguards are dead; she’s also dead and missing her fingers. Cross studies the scene and labels this carnage the work of a single methodical and ferociously intelligent killer, albeit one with a few screws loose. (This would be Picasso.)

Somehow — and the frequently sloppy script never makes this clear — this woman is tied to German corporate bigwig Erich Nunemacher (Werner Daehn), who in turn is allied with multi-national industrialist Leon Mercier (Jean Reno), who has a bold vision for transforming downtown Detroit into a city of the future.

For reasons unknown, the shadowy Picasso is working his way up the food chain, with Mercier as his ultimate goal. Cross and his team are assigned by their precinct captain (John C. McGinley) to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Things ... don’t go as planned. (Are you surprised?)

Longtime Patterson fans who worried about whether Perry could handle this role — he is, after all, best known for cross-dressing comic turns in the likes of Madea’s Big Happy Family — can rest easy; he’s eminently credible ... at least, initially. Perry displays both a no-nonsense investigative manner and a sweet, sensitive side; he and Ejogo share a pleasant, easy chemistry as a couple.

Burns is properly laid back as the laconic Kane, who functions as Cross’ walking conscience: the longtime bro’ who often challenges his partner to be a better version of himself. Burns and Perry also do well at trading this script’s few quips: mordant commentary and gallows humor, which is appropriate, given the circumstances.

Fox, as mentioned, is the ultimate adversary: a presence felt throughout this story even when Picasso is nowhere to be seen.

Tyson is a delight as Nana Mama, and Yara Shahidi is superb as Cross’ young daughter, Janelle.

Nichols never successfully inhabits her character, mostly because she lacks the necessary acting chops; it’s impossible to get a sense of who Ashe is. McGinley is wasted in a one-dimensional, take-charge role that the screenwriters manipulate to ludicrous extremes; Brookwell’s “command decision” in the third act is too stupid for words.

But, then, “too stupid for words” is pretty common in this inept screenplay. The reason for Picasso’s name is specious at best, and a detail quickly abandoned. One prominent character’s off-camera death is so sudden — and so inexplicably forgotten, from that point forward — that I couldn’t help wondering if some key exposition scenes had been left behind.

Cohen’s bombastic directorial flourishes are irritating throughout, and the jumpy editing — by Matt Diezel and Thom Noble — is equally exasperating. This isn’t a film to relax and watch; it’s something to be endured. Everything builds to a silly, pell-mell climax in Detroit’s former Michigan Theater, now (sadly) transformed into a three-story parking lot with its ornate 1920s plasterwork ceiling hanging mostly intact 60 feet above the cars.

One gets the impression — from the way Cohen stages this scene, and cinematographer Ricardo Della Rosa shoots it — that the setting is far more important than the characters battling within in. And that, I think, says it all.

Patterson is one of 12 (!) producers credited on this mess. Clearly, he should have held out for a better jury.

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