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<i>Alex Cross</i>: Or, <i>Tyler Perry’s Why Am I In This Movie?</i>

If you were looking to fill the role of a forensic psychologist/homicide detective who is tasked with tracking down a ruthless serial killer, Tyler Perry probably wouldn't be the first name to spring to mind. Heck, he probably wouldn't be the 50th name to spring to mind. Yet there's the writer/director/actor/one-man movie industry on the poster for Alex Cross, the would-be launching pad for a new film franchise based on James Patterson's bestselling crime fiction series about the titular investigator, previously portrayed by Morgan Freeman in a pair of moderately successful movies from over a decade ago. Looking at the somber expression Perry wears both on the one-sheet and throughout the movie, one can't help but wonder what's going through his head. Is it, "Boy, I gotta catch this guy." Or, "Remember, you aren't Madea right now -- no smiling." Or maybe he's just thinking, "What the hell am I doing in this hot mess anyway?"

And make no mistake, Alex Cross is a hot mess from start to finish. Perhaps the best way I can encapsulate the experience of watching this inept thriller -- which, for the record, was directed by Rob Cohen and not Perry himself -- is to compare it to observing a tech run for a high school play. The line readings are flat and perfunctory, technical failures (including shoddy special effects, bad lighting and incoherent blocking) are plentiful and there's an overall feeling that everyone involved is going through the motions in preparation for the real performance. Only in this case, there is no real performance -- the tech run is what was captured for posterity on camera. Granted, considering the material Cohen and the cast were working with, it's unlikely that Alex Cross would ever have been a great movie. But with a little more style and a heck of a lot more gravitas, it could have at least masqueraded as passable entertainment, instead of the instant Razzie contender that's flooding theaters this weekend to attract the spillover from Paranormal Activity 4.

Based on Patterson's 12th Cross novel -- titled simply Cross -- Alex Cross introduces us to a younger version of the character, one who is still employed by the Detroit police department, but contemplating a move to the FBI in order to spend more time with his wife Maria (Carmen) and their two children, with a third on the way. Before he can make this big career decision though, he and his partners Tommy Kane (Edward Burns) and Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols), are assigned to a gruesome homicide case, which turns out to be the work of a maniacal psycho killer that the detectives nickname Picasso... because he likes to leave cryptic cubist drawings at the scene of his crimes. He's played by Matthew Fox, who apparently followed the same regimen innovated by Lance Armstrong to transform his body into a lean, mean, killing machine with bulging veins to complement his bulging eyeballs. Cross and his partners manage to interrupt Picasso's next murder, but that only causes him to interrupt his main job for a side dish of revenge, slaying Monica (who Tommy was sleeping with) and then putting a bullet through Maria's chest while Alex rushes in vain to save her. Following his wife's execution, Cross goes into full-on vigilante mode -- complete with beating up on suspects and breaking into his station's evidence room -- in an effort to stop Picasso once and for all, preferably by leaving him six feet under.

One could, I suppose, make the case that Cohen is consciously making a modern-day version of a '70s Blaxploitation picture. Some of the same elements are there, from the sneering white villain, to the revenge plot, to the gritty urban setting, to a developing conspiracy that pits the lone working class hero against a cabal of wealthy tycoons, one of whom is played by Jean Reno, phoning in what hopefully was only one or two days' worth of well-compensated work. (Those movies were also marked by some of the same technical and budgetary shortcomings that plague Alex Cross as well, mistakes that were brilliantly parodied by that Black Dynamite spoof from a few years back.) But the best Blaxploitation movies pulsated with attitude and energy, two things that are entirely lacking from Alex Cross. Instead, the movie takes its cue from its star's blank-faced performance; always a more natural performer when he's disguised as a brassy grandmother or a trash-talking, gray-haired uncle, Perry seems profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin. He tries so hard to stay serious, his performance becomes unintentionally hilarious, especially whenever he's force to verbalize Cross's thought process as he puts the case together. Fox, on the other hand, is off-the-charts loony tunes, but in a way that makes you fear for his sanity rather than respect his artistry. The movie builds to a mano-a-mano face-off between the two that's laughably ludicrous, not just due to the unlikeliness of the outcome, but also because the bout is clearly being waged by their stunt-doubles. It's moments like this that make Alex Cross a leading contender for the year's funniest movie. Wait... what do you mean it's supposed to be a thriller?

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