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Amateur script, poor performances in 'Alex Cross'

When filmmakers go from Morgan Freeman to Tyler Perry as their leading man, they are definitely trading down.

Yet so many other things are wrong with the wretched “Alex Cross” that Perry’s somnambulistic performance doesn’t even crack the top five.

“Alex Cross” is yet another attempt to reboot a film franchise, although that claim is dubious to begin with. Freeman played Cross only twice (in “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider”) more than a decade ago. Two films don’t qualify as a series.

The character may not have lasted long in cinemas, but in bookstores (those that remain), Alex Cross is a sensation. Bestselling novelist James Patterson can’t crank out Alex Cross mysteries fast enough for his publisher.

The producers of “Alex Cross” hope that by reintroducing the character to filmgoers, they can tap into Patterson’s insanely loyal fan base. By casting Perry, they hope to tap into his insanely loyal fan base.

Though I belong to neither insanely loyal fan base, I suspect members of each will be upset with the results. Patterson’s fans won’t be happy with liberties taken with the character. Perry’s fans, used to his cross-dressing Madea comedies, will be upset by the extreme violence.

Director Rob Cohen wastes no time distinguishing Perry from Freeman. “Alex Cross” opens with Cross running after a suspect through underground passageways, taking him down with a flying tackle and pummeling him with his fists. None of this is in Freeman’s usual repertoire.

Immediately afterward, the film establishes Cross as a warm-hearted, level-headed family man with an ideal home life. Golden sunlight shines in every room of the Cross household, and his two children are happy to do their schoolwork. Carmen Ejogo plays Cross’ wife, Maria, and Cicely Tyson plays his mother, called Nana Mama. When Maria announces she is pregnant in this early scene, you just know bad things are in store for her.

Although every previous Alex Cross originates in Washington, D.C., this one takes place in Detroit, perhaps because it fancies itself a prequel to Patterson’s books. Cross’ partner in the Detroit police, Tommy Kane, is played by Edward Burns who is, in general, one of the worst things that can happen to a movie. Tommy is canoodling with another member of the team, Monica (Rachel Nichols), and Cross warns Tommy against dating a co-worker.

Cross is pitted against a hit man called Picasso (Matthew Fox of “Lost”), so nicknamed because he leaves behind cubist sketches of his victims. Like so many other things in the story, this plot device is abandoned shortly after it is introduced. Based on the unlikely way Cross discovers a clue, Fox could just as easily have been called the Mad Fold-In Killer.

Picasso is targeting Jean Reno and other top officers of a Franco-German corporation or hedge fund or some such thing that has pledged billions to revive downtown Detroit. Meanwhile, the major cities of France and Germany are left asking, “What are we, chopped goose liver?”

Cross and his team interrupt one of Picasso’s elaborate hits (he infiltrates an “impregnable” skyscraper by scuba diving through its water system), and the killer turns against his hunters. Soon things get very personal in ways that turn “Alex Cross” into one ugly, dishonest film.

The filmmakers raise ethical questions, then ignore them. No less a moral figure than Cicely Tyson in full emotive glory warns Cross that if he pursues a path of vengeance, he will no longer be a fit father. Yet even after Cross goes against his values and performs acts that make Dirty Harry look like the lawyer who composed the Miranda rights, his persona as a wise and loving family man remains undamaged. Those qualities are necessary for the sequels, you see.

The script, credited to Mark Moss and Kerry Williamson (both with skimpy resumes), lacks the conviction to examine what Cross’ actions would do to his soul. The script lacks, period. Loosely based on Patterson’s novel “Cross,” “Alex Cross” is one of the worst written major studio releases in years.

Characters take turns competing to see who can most obviously state the obvious. Exposition is clumsy (“We’ve been best friends since we were little kids,” Tommy says of Cross). Romantic dialogue induces cringes.

The script introduces ideas and character traits, then drops them. Cross is supposed to have a Sherlock Holmes-level of deduction, which comes in handy for precisely one scene. After that he runs around blasting away with a shotgun like a Stallone character. The whole financial deal turns out to be a disposable plot point, and the solution to the mystery is insulting, mostly because we’re not informed until the final 10 minutes that the story was a mystery.

Tyler’s performance is so low-key you occasionally wish you could prick him with a pin to make sure he hasn’t expired. Fox overcompensates for Tyler’s inactivity by pulling out every psycho killer tic. You know that thing that tough guys always do in movies, slowly roll their heads until their neck cracks? He does that a lot. Sometimes he literally quivers with evil. Or malnutrition. Fox’s physique is nothing but muscle tone and tattoos.

Picasso is your standard unstoppable killing machine who delights in making people suffer. He tortures his female victims to death, and though most of the carnage occurs off camera, the sadism is so profound that the film’s lenient PG-13 rating is an outrage. The supporting cast of “Alex Cross” has a surprisingly high casualty rate. People in “The Poseidon Adventure” had a better chance at survival.

The only thing that comes off looking good is Detroit, possibly because much of the film was shot in Cleveland. Director Cohen’s sense for location work is commendable, but his bobbing, handheld camerawork is exasperating.

The two Alex Cross films that featured Freeman were serial killer thrillers typical of their time. This “Alex Cross” is built around the title character and is clearly designed to launch a series. As awful as it is, it might succeed. The combined forces of Patterson’s and Tyler’s fans could make this dog a hit before they realize they hate it.

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