It had so much potential.
The extraordinary Idris Elba (TV’s “The Wire” and “Luther”) was set to bring to life an iconic literary character so popular, he’s headlined 17 novels by publishing heavyweight James Patterson. (Granted, it seems Patterson puts his name on 17 novels a month these days, but that’s still an accomplishment.)
Then producers shoved Elba aside for Tyler Perry.
Tyler Perry? From the Madea movies? It’s called “Alex Cross” not “Alex Cross-Dresser.”
The result is an unsatisfying hodgepodge - not actually based on, and rarely even resembling, any of the Alex Cross books - that feels less like a Hollywood blockbuster than something concocted by WWE Studios.
When we first meet Perry’s Cross, he’s chasing a suspect - along with partners Thomas Kane (Edward Burns) and Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols) - and uttering tough-guy nonsense of the “Is this how you wanna die?” variety.
Things only go downhill from there.
In this version - set not in the Washington, D.C., of the novels, but in Detroit, yet largely filmed in Cleveland - Detective Cross has already decided to leave the dangerous streets for a desk job as a criminal profiler for the FBI. He’s also just learned that his wife is pregnant. Given those two facts, in case you’ve never seen a cop movie - spoiler alert! - things don’t end well.
That’s because a sophisticated assassin referred to as Picasso (Matthew Fox) is on the loose.
Fox, P90X-ed to within an ounce of his life, is nearly unrecognizable - which, as far as his career is concerned, is probably for the best.
Wild-eyed and veiny, Picasso twitches and preens like Matthew McConaughey’s malnourished younger brother. He’s one of those only-in-the-movies villains who draws charcoal portraits of his victims, which he leaves as clues for the police, when he’s not underground cage-fighting for fun.
After being shot in the shoulder, he does a series of chin-ups before attending to his wound.
And he learns about Cross and his team by staring at a newspaper clipping that would never exist anywhere. (Hollywood rarely gets newspapers right, but this is just silly.)
Fox and Burns aren’t the only ones dragged down by this mess. John C. McGinley, Giancarlo Esposito, Jean Reno and his giant pinkie ring, even poor Cicely Tyson as Nana Mama all deserve better.
At times, “Alex Cross” is less convincing as a thriller than as the most elaborately violent Cadillac commercial you’ll ever see. If only everyone involved cared as much about the plot as they did in lining up the multiple lingering shots of the product-placed luxury car.
Speaking of the cinematography, whoever shot the climactic fight scene must have been either suffering from a series of seizures or trying to induce them in moviegoers.
But the failure of “Alex Cross” begins with Perry and his limited range. It’s as though once he came onboard, everything else was compromised, down to the retooled script credited to Marc Moss, Kerry Williamson and director Rob Cohen.
This isn’t the character’s first movie appearance. Cross previously was portrayed in “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider” by Morgan Freeman, who also wasn’t a good fit for the role. But this was a chance to get him right.
Perry, one of the hardest-working people in show business, deserves credit for stretching outside his wildly successful brand. But he clearly overreached. After all, Tom Hanks didn’t go straight from “Bosom Buddies” to “Philadelphia.” There were plenty of “Turner & Hooches” and “Joe Versus the Volcanoes” along the way.
It’s just a shame Perry had to squander such a potentially great franchise by treating it like his personal action-movie fantasy camp.
Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal. Contact him at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com.