The saving grace of the serial-killer picture Kiss the Girls and the kidnapping thriller Along Came a Spider was the measured, judicious, surpassingly sensitive Morgan Freeman as James Patterson’s detective and psychologist Alex Cross. Freeman was too good for the material, and he knew it, but at least you could focus on his watchful mien and the cracked melody of his voice instead of the third-rate plotting and casual sadism. Old Freeman has moved on, and there’s now a “reboot,” called, simply, Alex Cross. Big, beefy mini-mogul Tyler Perry has climbed out of his panty hose and got some high-priced training in how to look convincing shooting a gun and beating up bad guys. Playing things straight, he’s a dull actor, indeed, with dead eyes and strange-looking pool-ball lumps in each cheek. But the movie will be a hit. It works you over as single-mindedly as its villain works over assorted young women.
The bad guy is a near-superhuman assassin nicknamed “Picasso,” because he leaves behind rather accomplished sketches of victims past and future. He’s icy but enjoys inflicting pain. Cross theorizes the man is “ex-military and a sociopathic narcissist … He wants them to suffer — his mother, his father, himself, the world … ” Picasso is played by a wiry but startlingly emaciated Matthew Fox, who I’d like to think starved himself as penance for the conclusion of Lost (second only to the new Battlestar Galactica in the “I spent years mulling over every bit of minutiae for this bullshit? competition). Picasso paralyzes a woman and then tortures her to death, and there are plenty of shots (and glossies posted in the detectives’ headquarters) of her wide-eyed corpse, but there’s no blood, and the naughty bits are tastefully covered, so the movie is rated PG-13. Perry is a big believer in God and family values, so amid the carnage are solemn church scenes and shots of grieving children.
Director Rob Cohen developed an exciting syntax in the first Fast and Furious movie. Here, he brings off some jolting effects in the fight sequences (mixed boxing, wrestling, and martial artists) with a hand-held camera — the filmmaking equivalent of “fighting dirty” but in a good way. That said, it’s impossible to respect a director who’d get onboard with material this bludgeoning. I probably spend too much time reading the likes of Lawrence Block (also given to sadistic violence) and Michael Connelly, but Patterson and his assembly line of co-writers are the bottom of the barrel. From Wikipedia: “Alex [Cross] has had bad luck with women. His wife was murdered. His lover in Along Came a Spider, Jezzie Flanigan, is involved in the kidnapping of two children, for which she is executed by lethal injection. His fiancée, Christine Johnson, was kidnapped for almost a year by Geoffrey Shafer. An FBI agent with whom he had been partnered, Betsey Cavalierre, was murdered by a serial killer called The Mastermind … ” To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one woman may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose four or more looks like your creator is a sick fuck.
Maybe the most upsetting part of my evening was after I’d left the theater. Behind me, an older mother (African-American) was thanking her son for taking her. “A lot of movies today you just don’t know about,” she said. “But this was a good one.” That’s the Tyler Perry touch. Alex Cross is coarse, punishing, and, in all the ways that matter, conscienceless, but it’s about a loving father and husband versus a deviant, and it makes the right pious noises on the subject of revenge. When Cross’s Granny (Cicely Tyson, alas) says that if Alex does what she thinks he’s going to do (i.e., his job, hunting down an assassin and serial murderer), then “how you gonna look your children in the eye?” he replies, “I will meet his soul at the gates of hell before I will let him take another person from me that I love.” That’s what you call a non-dilemma. And what does Cross do that’s so nasty? The kind of extreme interrogation of an unambiguous scumbag drug chemist that would get him laughed out of Guantanamo as a pussy. What a whorish film this is: Even the serial killer lectures the detective, quoting Confucius: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” But turning the other cheek would mean death at the box office, which is the only kind of grave that matters in this moral universe.