In "Alex Cross," Tyler Perry, way, way out of his signature drag character Madea's wig and sensible shoes, refashions himself as the forensic psychologist and homicide detective played previously on screen by Morgan Freeman in adaptations of James Patterson's novels "Along Came a Spider" and "Kiss the Girls."
Perry's going to surprise some people. This was his chance to prove he could hold a film together in a relatively conventional action-hero leading role, and the imposingly scaled actor with the soothing voice and rolling gait does the job.
But what is the job, exactly? Same ol', same ol'. Catch the methodical, sadistic antagonist before he kills again, but not too early in the story. Or else there's no story. The story requires its mutilated corpses (snipped-off fingers here, charred skin there, some of which pushes the PG-13 rating past a sensible limit) in order to exist.
The wrinkle here, beyond the casting of Perry, is in screenwriters Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson pushing Patterson's source novel "Cross" (mostly tossed out) into an origin story as well as a straight-up revenge melodrama. I don't remember Morgan Freeman sidelining the character's stoic, deductive reason in favor of sawed-off shotguns and bloodthirsty vigilante justice. "Alex Cross" begins with wisecracking banter between our hero and his best friend and fellow cop (Edward Burns, a genial asset). Then, when the slaughter get personal -- as movie serial killers so often take the time to make it -- it's all about the Old Testament payback.
The murderer known as Picasso, given cliched feral intensity by Matthew Fox of "Lost," makes a big deal of the one-liner attributed to Confucius: "When seeking out on a path of revenge, dig two graves." This proverb refers to the self-defeating limitations of vengeance, but guess what? The proverb doesn't apply to this movie at all! "Alex Cross" is so down with revenge it's practically giddy, and with "Taken 2" already murdering the box office this month, it's definitely a buyer's market for this stuff.
The psycho leaves Cubist-style charcoal drawings at the scenes of his crimes, and appears to have his ultimate sights set on what the film's production notes describe as "a Detroit-based multi-national industrialist" played by Jean Reno. (Cleveland plays the part of Detroit, though the production filmed a couple of weeks in Michigan.) Cross, the "head shrinker," is encouraged by Burns' character to "get inside the monster's head" and to "think like him." (Daisy-fresh, that dialogue.) When the film starts, Cross's wife (Carmen Ejogo) has a third child on the way, and Cross' Rock of Gibraltar of a mother (Cicely Tyson, visibly thinking back on more interesting projects while filming this one) dispenses hard-won advice on what's important. What happens to the family in "Alex Cross" doesn't require a spoiler alert so much as a here-we-go-again alert.
Now and then director Rob Cohen, whose career includes "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" (a tasty biopic) and other, lesser products, manages an effectively staged bit of chaos, as when a SWAT team's vehicles screech into place during a City Hall lockdown. (If this is the work of the second-unit team: Nice going.) The climax, however, provides the wrong sort of chaos; the closer Cohen rams the camera to his pummeling actors, the more you don't know what's actually transpiring. The sharpest five minutes in "Alex Cross," by a considerable margin, belong to Giancarlo Esposito, slyly charismatic as an underworld kingpin with whom Cross, once he has crossed over to Charles Bronsonland, must conduct some business. If only we could click on that link and leave the movie's home page long enough to get to know Esposito's silken bad guy better.
'Alex Cross' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for violence including disturbing images, sexual content, language, drug references, and nudity)
Running time: 1:42