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NPR Arts & Life

Tyler Perry Takes A Shot At Thriller Territory

Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) makes it his personal mission to track down a serial killer (Matthew Fox) after the latter targets his family.
Sidney Baldwin
Summit Entertainment
Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) makes it his personal mission to track down a serial killer (Matthew Fox) after the latter targets his family.

A vigilante with the heart of a social worker, the protagonist of Alex Cross wants to nurture and uplift — but also to make the sort of moves that delight a multiplex crowd.

He is, in short, Tyler Perry's alter ego.

Created by thriller writer James Patterson, Cross has been played by Morgan Freeman in two previous movies, Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. But as this title suggests, Alex Cross starts from zero. Perry's version of the character is near the beginning of his career, yet to experience life-defining events. He also lives in Detroit, not D.C., although a new career at the FBI's national headquarters beckons as the story begins.

A psychologist as well as a detective, Cross is introduced with two scenes. In the first, he tries to convince an innocent young woman wearing a prison jumpsuit that she shouldn't take the rap for someone else. In the second, he demonstrates his powers of observation — and his warm home life — by using meager clues to deduce what his wife (Carmen Ejogo) has been doing.

Both episodes will matter later, but the movie's main event is Cross' pursuit of an unnamed assassin (Matthew Fox) instantly diagnosed by the detective as "a stimulus-seeking sociopathic narcissist." The killer, who enters an illicit boxing match as "The Butcher of Sligo," begins by sadistically torturing and killing a Taiwanese sexpot.

Exactly why is not clear, and won't be even after the anticlimactic wrap-up in which the plot's prime conspirator chattily explains it all. But the high female death toll in this movie suggests that the fairly shallow Seven Psychopaths was actually on to something when it lampooned Hollywood action flicks for introducing female characters just to slaughter them.

The Butcher, who has spy tech worthy of 007, seems to be after Giles Mercier (Jean Reno), a French plutocrat with an inexplicable interest in rebuilding Detroit. Cross and his partner, Tommy (Edward Burns), first tangle with the killer in Mercier's high-tech tower, driving him off.

Out of pique — and because he's a stimulus-seeking sociopathic narcissist — The Butcher retaliates against Alex's and Tommy's loved ones. Now it's personal, and the two cops throw away the rule book to pursue their quarry through Detroit's grandly decaying cityscape. The final battle is staged in the rotting Michigan Theater, a former movie palace now used as a parking garage.

It's a strange sort of film that casts Gallic tough guy Jean Reno as a clean-fingernailed mogul while employing cross-dressing comic Tyler Perry as a guy capable of hand-to-hand combat with someone called The Butcher of Sligo. To play the lean assassin, Fox evidently trained (and dieted) for months. Perry doesn't appear to have made comparable effort. The two men's combat would look hopelessly mismatched, except that director Rob Cohen ( The Fast and the Furious) shot and edited it so incoherently; the murky scene's camera movements are more violent than the blows.

Patterson's novels are known for sadistic violence, but Alex Cross managed to get a PG-13 rating by keeping the most disturbing moments off-camera. Rather than watching the assassin sever a victim's fingers, the audience only gets to see a bowl full of the digits and hear Alex and Tommy banter over which of them will fish out a bloody thumb. It's a moment that, like much of this movie, is as goofy as it is gruesome.

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