The lean, mean bad guy calls himself “The Butcher of Sligo.” That’s the monicker he chooses when he talks himself into a Detroit martial arts cage match in the new thriller “Alex Cross,” starring Tyler Perry. The villain just wants a little, no-holds-barred action with the best while he’s in town.
His hidden agenda takes time to appear. But in the cage, he has one rule for his opponent: “Don’t hit me in the face,” he advises the behemoth who outweighs him by about 100 pounds, “or you’ll never fight again.” Sure enouch, the cocky mixed martial arts lummox starts slugging Sligo’s Butcher in his thin, twitchy puss.
What follows from director Rob Cohen (“Fast and Furious”) is violent, brutal, but incoherent action that ends with – best guess – the loser unable to fight again. (I wouldn’t give much of a prognosis for using his left arm again, either.)
That’s what the “action” is like all through the movie, especially at the end, when Alex Cross – the Superman cop/psychiatrist who can profile anyone and everyone and smell what you had for lunch – and the Butcher go at it for the mano a mano finale the audience has always known was coming. It’s mostly an incoherent blur whose very incoherence and grunting and music are meant to convey violence – but lots of luck trying to figure out exactly who’s doing what to whom at any moment. (I must say, Cross’ Sasquatch groin kick was crystal clear, even if the Butcher’s recovery time is suspiciously quick.)
“Alex Cross” is, by any measure, a mediocre B movie, but it’s notable for one thing: Here is Tyler Perry moving way out of his wheelhouse to pick up the James Patterson-inspired series that began with Morgan Freeman in “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider.”
Perry and Freeman are almost nothing alike, to understate a bit. Freeman is one of our finest film actors with a voice appropriate for reading aloud Genesis 1:1 to its first congregation. Perry is the one-man entertainment conglomerate whom the journalist Touré has called one of the worst directors alive and Spike Lee has smothered in disgust at almost every chance.
Perry, though, has made a fortune giving predominantly black audiences films, TV and roadshows they’ve wanted to see, no matter what black intellectuals think of them.
He is not a bad actor, but he’s a peculiar one.
He’s big – 6-foot-5 – Liam Neeson and Clint Walker big. He ought to be made for roughneck action stuff. But he moves badly. And he has an incongruous baby face, which is good for turning into his funny signature character, the drag outrage Madea, but not always right for a movie camera that just needs a place to rest for a few seconds on something interesting. When he’s not emoting or moving, nothing about him is interesting to watch (unlike Freeman).
A good director might have figured out fascinating things to do with a big, baby-faced, lumbering ox, but Cohen doesn’t have a single interesting idea.
All you get is the plot’s grudge match between the twitchy super psycho – played by Matthew Fox, after what seems to have been a diet of celery and coconut water – and Cross, a super cop who is about to join the FBI. (In another role, the venerable French star Jean Reno seems to have gained all of the weight that Fox lost for his role.)
If you watch TV at all, you’ll recognize the back story of almost every CBS super cop drama as the front story this time. Playing Perry’s cop buddy is the always reliable Edward Burns, who could have put across all manner of lines with comic spin if anyone had thought to give them to him.
No such luck. So, by default, the real star of the film is the city of Detroit, still full of incongruous beauty and splendor beneath the ruins. It is a wonderful movie location.
On the other hand, the Cadillac product placement in “Alex Cross” has got to set some kind of record. Perry didn’t become a one-man conglomerate for nothing.