Having written, directed, and starred in a number of broad comedies, all proclaiming his ownership of the franchise, Tyler Perry surely qualifies as that darling of the cineastes, an auteur. Now, after playing the title character in all those Madea flicks, he takes on an entirely different role in an entirely different genre. He plays another title character in "Alex Cross," based on a novel by James Patterson, an author even more prolific than Perry.
The movie is a thriller, a detective story that departs at least a little way from the usual contemporary form in presenting, instead of the familiar car chases and shootouts, at least a modicum of mystery and some actual crime solving. As in the Patterson novels, Alex Cross is not only a detective but also a psychiatrist, which means he brings a special combination of experience and insight to his job as a Detroit homicide cop. It also presumably makes him the ideal sleuth to track down a vicious serial killer who enjoys torturing his victims before dispatching them.
The picture initially employs some puzzling misdirection, showing the successful apprehension of a criminal by the team of Alex Cross, his best friend and colleague Tommy Kane (Edward Burns), and Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols). It also focuses on Cross's blissful domestic life with his wife, children, and his mother, dwelling with considerable ersatz emotionalism on the sweet perfection of his marriage and his family, a subject that eventually accounts for some of the disasters that follow.
The narrative in effect interrupts itself with an apparently unrelated and extremely violent sequence showing an ultimate fighting match in a shabby abandoned building, where a lean, almost skeletal man (Matthew Fox) calling himself the Butcher of Sligo offers to fight against the large, muscular champion. His performance in the arena arouses a beautiful woman (Stephanie Jacobsen), who takes him back to her heavily guarded mansion for another sort of performance. A big mistake — he tortures her horribly and kills her and her bodyguards, which brings Alex Cross and his colleagues back into the plot.
The grisly, apparently motiveless crime begins to make sense as Cross exercises his powers of deduction on the scant evidence, applying an ingenious and quite macabre method of opening the victim's safe to find a trail of evidence. That trail leads him to a couple of enormously wealthy foreign businessmen planning to invest heavily in a splendid urban development for the blighted city of Detroit. Unlike the usual psychopath, this killer, whom the cops call Picasso because he leaves drawings at the scene of the crime, apparently follows a particular scheme, intending to murder the two top executives of the development company.
Picasso resembles the rest of his cinematic brotherhood, however, in his uncanny ability to outwit the police at every turn, penetrate the stoutest defenses, and defeat platoons of heavily armed security guards. Torturing and killing almost at will, he plays a cat-and-mouse game with Cross, eventually inspiring the detective to engage in his own irrational quest for bloody vengeance. Even when the quest apparently succeeds, Cross must solve yet another puzzle, a mystery behind the mystery, an act that fulfills his hunger for revenge.
Although a psychiatrist seems just the right person to hunt a serial killer, Alex Cross indulges in very little analysis beyond a superficial and entirely predictable conversation with Picasso. Aside from his penchant for analyzing his colleagues and deducing all sorts of surprising information about them, he mostly behaves like the usual cop in the usual thriller, succeeding mostly through his courage, toughness, and his ability to withstand pain.
A very big man with a correspondingly impressive presence, Tyler Perry sometimes almost comically appears to dwarf his fellow actors, who hardly distinguish themselves beyond the sentimental stereotyping that constitutes the emotional maturity of the movie. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the murderer himself provides the richest source of interest — cold, dedicated, fanatical, without the sexual obsessions that drive others of his ilk, Picasso seems almost superhuman in his physical and intellectual abilities, an appropriate match for Alex Cross and a worthy addition to the list of contemporary villains. Like it or not, the serial killer remains the favorite cinematic criminal of our time.