I know that Alex Cross, the latest adaptation drawn from James Patterson’s series of thrillers about the genius detective/profiler, intended to get my blood pressure up. A savage killer (Matthew Fox) one or two fatal steps ahead of the noble Detroit police detective Alex Cross (Tyler Perry), good women in jeopardy, bad women being tortured, urgent chases on foot and by car—classic hallmarks of the criminal thriller. But the movie is ugly in spirit and looks. All Alex Cross spiked was my appreciation for Morgan Freeman, the original cinematic Alex Cross.
Freeman starred in the Patterson adaptations Along Came a Spider (2001) and Kiss the Girls (1997), where he was paired with red hot and very fierce Ashley Judd. With gravitas and grace, he elevated the sadistic shlock around him. Yes there were pretty girls kept in dungeons and children being kidnapped and murdered for fun, but what mattered was Freeman’s character study of a wise and damaged man, who could diagnose darkness because he knew it firsthand. Perry’s new Alex is heavier physically but seems like a lightweight in comparison.
Alex Cross serves as a prequel to the other films, although the smart phones and gleaming laptops indicate it is set in today’s world. Alex is married to Maria (the stunning Carmen Ejogo from Sparkle) and the couple is happily expecting their third child. (Anyone who has read any of Patterson’s Cross novels knows how that is going to work out.) They’re debating moving his Nana (Cicely Tyson) and the kids to Washington D.C. so Alex can take a job with the FBI. Maria is dubious, but Alex promises her they have “great dental.” Then Fox’s character, called Picasso but self-identifying as the Butcher of Sligo, starts killing people. He’s working his way up a corporate ladder to a big cheese CEO, Leon Mercier (Jean Reno), who has a plan to rebuild Detroit (heavy on the schematics, sketchy on the details).
Where Freeman was warm but enigmatic, Perry is warm but empty. When the playwright-turned-movie-director and Madea franchise mogul gazes into the distance and theorizes about the killer, there is no sense that any calculations are taking place in his brain. “Ex-military, sociopathic narcissist,” he says, looking as if his nose is identifying the scents in an overwhelming cologne. (Clove! Narcissist! Musk!) This is the story where Alex Cross experiences his deepest hurt, the wound that forms the future FBI profiler, but the performance is so emotionally shallow you’d never know it. He wears two expressions, either the furrowed brow or the jolly smile. Perry has left the hamminess of his Madea incarnation behind, but maybe in suppressing her, he has suppressed himself.
(READ: Where does Freeman land on TIME’s Top 10 Badass Geezers list?)
But Perry is by no means entirely to blame for how terrible Alex Cross is. The dialogue is often laughable, the cinematography garish and the editing mortifyingly unsubtle (there’s a cut from Alex cradling a dead woman to a Madonna and child statue in a church). I never got a sense of any detecting happening; a pronouncement is plucked from the air and then Alex and his partner and best friend from junior high, Tommy Kane (Ed Burns) race off to the next location. Much pressure is put upon Alex to serve as a human GPS for Picasso. “Come on man,” Tommy yells at Alex. “Get inside his head! Where would you be?” (Burns plays essentially the same role he played in last winter’s Man on a Ledge, the not-so-smart cop who makes his partner seem like an Einstein, but at least he’s mildly amusing in the film’s early scenes.) When a fight begins, director Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious) dissolves into hallucinatory slow motion, the camera moving with the grace of a drunkard falling from a bar stool. I believe Cohen is trying to give us concussions.
(READ: TIME’s profile of Tyler Perry)
Then there is the matter of the tedious villain. Matthew Fox has obviously gone to a lot of trouble to slough off Jack from Lost’s nice guy aura and transform himself into the unhinged, maniacal Picasso. He’s rail thin and obsessively buffed and all his pretty teeth look like they’ve been filed down and soaked in coffee and nicotine. When an actor makes this kind of commitment to a role and is so very eager to preen, we all hope it is worth it, just as when a child emerges with their first self-devised Halloween costume we want to be able to say with confidence “What a great Ninja!” rather than “So…is that a Ninja?” Fox’s Picasso might generate a “What a neat Christian Bale! Like The Fighter but without any humanity, right?” or perhaps, “Are you dressed up like Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast?” This Picasso is a copy, and this Alex Cross less a reboot than a limp spin-off.
READ: About the time Joel Stein felt emasculated by Matthew Fox.