Madea Gets Even

There’s just something about Tyler Perry cascading off the side of a crumbling cement wall in slow motion that doesn’t mix well. Actually, Tyler Perry didn’t mix well with most of the things that occur in “Alex Cross.” Directed by Rob Cohen (“Dragonheart,” anyone?) and based on the detective novels written by James Patterson, “Alex Cross” has “action movie” written all over it. At least, that’s what was written all over it, until someone came along and scribbled in enough bad jokes to scare away “Saturday Night Live.”

Meant to represent the 12th book of the “Cross” saga, “Alex Cross” serves as an origin story for the well-known fictional detective/psychologist/family man. The script, written by Marc Moss (whose only other work is another Alex Cross film adaptation, “Along Came a Spider” starring Morgan Freeman) and Kerry Williamson (who has no other work), focuses on Cross’s stint on the Detroit police force pre-FBI days. It starts off like any other action-oriented psycho-thriller: gunshots, chase scenes, scratch-free explosions, and a ludicrously sadistic sociopath serial killer played by a scarily gaunt Matthew Fox, who is out to get the rich and powerful (and a dead woman sans fingers).

Alex Cross seems to have met his match with Michael Sullivan/The Butcher/Picasso (Can he get any more nicknames?) a crazed hitman working for a paranoid French millionaire, complete with fetishes for charcoal drawings and inflicting pain. He’s also got a bad habit of evading capture, always one step ahead of our acutely aware detective. As Cross and his childhood friend and police partner Tommy Kane (Edward Burns) hunt down Picasso, he in turn decides to mentally torture Cross in the worst possible ways. After shooting down Cross’s pregnant wife on their anniversary and killing his female partner (Rachel Nichols), Cross becomes consumed with capturing Picasso. A battle of cat-and-mouse ensues but, to paraphrase Picasso, embarking on a journey of revenge requires digging two graves.

While the plot appears to be loaded with cheap suspense and danger, fear not — there’s plenty of comedic dialogue wedged in there for a giggle. And while there are indeed some humorous moments, especially those between Perry and Burns (their banter over who gets the “honor” of opening a safe with a severed thumb was cause for more excitement than most everything else in the film), for the most part, the movie is full of irrelevant jokes awkwardly placed amongst the shoot-’em-up action sequences for the sole purpose of getting a laugh. Take a simple scene involving two computer nerds giving the cops Picasso-related information, which was completely missed because of an irrelevant Geico caveman joke made at the expense of the two actors, who were apparently hired only to wield large beards.

Tyler Perry’s debut as a dramatic actor is more of a lackluster, if slightly puzzling fizzle than an absolute failure. The lumbering Perry can’t help but carry a certain goofy charisma on screen — it was as though Perry got lost on his way to the Medea dressing room and ended up on the set of “Alex Cross.” He fumbles, uncomfortably delivering lines and trying as hard as he can to pretend to be a tough guy. Perry’s not a terrible stone-faced leading man, but he’s not a very believable or engaging one either.

The other actors aren’t any more comfortable on camera. Edward Burns and Rachel Nichols’ relationship is awkward and rushed and her character is disposed of before any real chemistry can be sparked between the two. Then there’s the super weird casting of John C. McGinley as the stiff police chief, a far cry from the snarky Dr. Cox he played so well on “Scrubs.” Stranger still is Jean Reno as the two-timing French damsel Leon Mercier, whose accent falls somewhere between Spanish and South Carolinian.

In the midst of all these grown actors being uncomfortable is the fragile innocence of Cross’s daughter, played by a fresh Yara Shahidi. Following her mother’s death, she steals the room with a raw understanding of vulnerability and pain far beyond her years. And then there’s Matthew Fox (“Lost”). Deadly, dangerous and ripped as hell, Fox’s Picasso is, if nothing else, frightening.

In fact, the only thing more distressing than Fox’s crazy killer eyes is how hard they are to see amidst the camera’s superfluous shaking. “Alex Cross” gives even “Cloverfield” a run for its money during a pivotal fight scene between Cross and Picasso in a worn-down theater.

Consistently, the best parts of this film were the silent ones. The final moments of “Alex Cross” hit home the hardest — the melancholy laughter of two old friends, the simple action of Cross’s daughter playing the piano after screaming that she never would again, the shared looks of relief and stifled pain between mother and son. But be warned: Before you see this movie, dig three graves. You might want one too.