If we love the art of cinema, how do we resolve the unavoidable rise of Tyler Perry? He’s prolific. He’s profitable. He’s not going anywhere. He has an entire empire to call his own. His powers grow with each passing year. In a couple ways, this is a good thing. His is a traditionally American success story, proving that an individual can come out of modest beginnings and become a lucrative force in an all-too-homogenous industry. Also, I am genuinely happy to concede this point: Tyler Perry’s movies consistently employ terrific actors in leading roles. A short list of deserving performers who have appeared under Tyler Perry’s spotlight would include such should-be-stars as Taraji P. Henson, Nia Long, Gabrielle Union, Anika Noni Rose, Sharon Leal, Idris Elba, Brian White, Derek Luke, and Michael Jai White. He’s also given roles to beloved veterans such as John Amos, Vanessa Williams, Marla Gibbs, Louis Gossett Jr., Lynn Whitfield, and Viola Davis. That’s an incomplete list, and it’s not a small deal. Mainstream Hollywood routinely fails most black actors, and Tyler Perry gives them a showcase. That’s the good side.
Unfortunately, while there are solid performances which frequently shine through, the films surrounding them are almost uniformly terrible. To be fair, I haven’t seen every last one, but I’ve seen the lion’s share, and more than you might expect. One or two, such as DADDY’S LITTLE GIRLS, are passable and not much worse than the average made-for-Lifetime melodrama, but most are howlingly, messily, embarrassingly bad. By “embarrassed” I mean it can make you embarrassed just to be the guy watching them. I wouldn’t know what it feels like to be the guy putting them out with his name all over them. I suspect he doesn’t spend much time watching them himself. How could he? He’s constantly crapping out the next one. And don’t get all het up when I call the majority of Tyler Perry’s work to date “crap.” It’s a technical term in this case. We’ve all seen GOODFELLAS, right? And we’ve seen TRANSFORMERS? There are objective standards of cinematic quality, none of which involve box office success. We all know the basic difference between excellent and awful.
The problem is Tyler Perry himself. A wildly successful producer in his position could afford to hire more capable writers and directors to carry out his vision, but since Tyler Perry came up as a playwright, he writes and directs every single one of his own movies. Since 2008, Tyler Perry has released two or three movies a year. If the credits are to be believed, he even writes all of the episodes of his TV series “House Of Payne” and “For Better Or Worse” by himself. (This is not only highly unusual for television, but also – I’ll say it – highly unlikely.) This is insanity. It’s a gargantuan workload. Do you know how hard it is to make just one movie? Do you know how hard it is to make even one episode of one television show? It’s a grueling ordeal – and the more you strive for excellence, the harder it gets. Not every filmmaker is as meticulous or as inspired as a Michael Mann or a David Fincher, but generally speaking, craftsmanship is something to be valued. It takes time to cook a good meal. You don’t want to rush it out there when it’s undercooked. Or you shouldn’t, anyway.
It’ll never happen, but in a perfect world, Tyler Perry would become self-aware, and instead of constantly churning out TV shows, plays, and movies which in ‘finished’ form vary wildly between mediocrity and atrocity, he’d realize that he’d be best served by taking some time off and focusing his attention on just one project. He’s got plenty to learn. His writing lacks worldliness. His scripts are filled with stale jokes and greeting-card platitudes, lacking even the semblance of depth. He makes easy villains of some of his characters, and uncomplicated angels out of others. Bad as his writing is, his directing style is even worse. He has the stolid visual sense of a still photographer, and weirdly, all his movies look like they were shot twenty years ago.
Tyler Perry’s personal success story – from community theater to household-name status – is inspiring, except for the demonstrable fact that everything he comes up with every time he goes anywhere near a camera is faulty and amateurish. This filmography may be prodigious, but it is not a proud legacy. At this point, going to film school would not be a bad idea. It’s worth the time spent. As it is, Tyler Perry is a nightmare factory – not only unaware of his many limitations, but apparently indefatigable. He is a fount of productivity, blissfully unconcerned with the fact that what he’s producing is, more often than not, heaps of garbage.
Tyler Perry, very much like the scarily even-more-popular Seth McFarlane, is a medium talent at best, whose phenomenal financial success has blinded him (and his fans) to the value of creative virtues such as artistic growth, quality control, sophistication, or honest self-assessment. He cuts a more agreeable, less self-satisfied public persona than McFarlane does, and more often seems interested in depicting genuine human interaction, but the work betrays the same level of self-regard and monomania. Ambition and industriousness far outstrips ability and resonance, and the end result has the nutritional value of a Happy Meal. We can’t escape either of these guys today, but unless something changes a lot, and soon, we won’t be talking about them much ten or twenty years hence.
There’s nothing lasting to the art. There’s no art to the product. And then: With hubris and without self-awareness comes the dangerous habit of stretching one’s success past its reasonable bounds. That’s why McFarlane seized the chance to host the Oscars, and did an epically crappy job. That’s why, tremendous ego undeterred, he’s currently prepping a Western in which he plays the lead. That’s why Tyler Perry has two films and yet another TV series scheduled for 2013. And that’s how Tyler Perry ended up in a movie like ALEX CROSS.
ALEX CROSS started out as the 43rd crime novel out of more than a hundred written by supermarket-checkout-line cropduster James Patterson. Patterson makes a fine living by unimaginatively combining two of pop culture’s most abhorrent fixations, serial killers and fairy tales. He’s the Tyler Perry of vapid, morbid beach reading. His books KISS THE GIRLS and ALONG CAME A SPIDER were adapted to film in the late 1990s. The stories revel in violence, most often done to women, by that specific variety of only-in-bad-movies serial killers with no basis in reality. These improbable brilliant-yet-sadistic murderers are invariably hunted down by a detective/psychologist/FBI agent named Alex Cross, who was played before now by Morgan Freeman. The two Freeman-Cross movies were directed by journeymen Gary Fleder and Lee Tamahori. Obviously both movies were well-acted, but there’s no good reason to see either one now. If you got Morgan Freeman good and drunk, I’m positive he’d tell you to skip them himself.
2012’s ALEX CROSS movie was directed by Rob Cohen, also a journeyman, but as director (2001’s THE FAST & THE FURIOUS) and especially producer (1987’s THE MONSTER SQUAD and THE RUNNING MAN), he’s one with a sense of how to make schlock entertaining. That’s the only logical way to look at ALEX CROSS. Idris Elba was originally cast in the title role, which might have promised a solid low-budget action-thriller, but once Tyler Perry stepped in, there would be absolutely no way to look at this movie with any seriousness. I have written at length about how flawed Perry is as a filmmaker, but now I will get into his acting, which is actually the single worst thing about his movies.
His signature character, the foul impersonation of an elderly woman he calls Madea, is one of the most abrasive caricatures that has appeared in the post-civil rights era. It’s hard to know what Perry thinks he’s getting at with that character. I don’t think he himself knows. If it’s supposed to be social or cultural satire, it’s dumber than dirt. If it’s supposed to be broad comedy, it’s just a shit take on Martin Lawrence’s Shanaynay character. And if it’s supposed to be either of those things, then why does Madea often appear in dramatic scenes, interacting with regular human characters? You can’t DO that! Imagine if Woody Woodpecker showed up at the end of LINCOLN!
Tyler Perry isn’t even any good as a drag queen. The best drag performers celebrate femininity, or disappear into character and make you forget their maleness, or combine their maleness and femininity and become something new and unique. Perry makes no attempt to observe or approximate anything about the way women, or men, truly are. Madea is just a loud asshole in a wig. And dropping that mess into a dramatic scene is worse than a joke. If I could advise Tyler Perry to learn just one thing, I would emphasize the importance of a consistent grasp of tone. He might argue that he’s making bank just fine the way he works now, but I could counter that nobody is putting his movies in a time capsule.
And if he wants to appear in mainstream movies outside of the Madea outfit, he’s got even more work to do. At least as Madea, Perry has a rude, stupid, unearned sense of confidence. He looks like he’s having some fun, at least. Tyler Perry in suit-and-tie drag is an empty vessel. For such a large man, he comes off as a hollow shell. Tyler Perry, serious actor, has no presence, no gravity. As Alex Cross, he lacks anima. In scenes where Alex Cross relaxes at home with his lovely wife (Carmen Ejogo), and she tells him that they are soon to be parents, he comes off like the friendly neighborhood mailman – enthusiastic, because he sees her every day and he’s a nice guy, but not all that emotionally engaged. When the wife is murdered in an ugly narrative attempt to engender audience bloodlust (James Patterson at work), Perry’s attempts at summoning expressions of rage are laughable. He’s unconvincing as a romantic lead, and even less convincing as a vengeful widower. He makes the dull pasty vampire kid in TWILIGHT look as impassioned as Denzel in MALCOLM X.
ALEX CROSS starts with a comical chase scene, meant to establish its hero as an intense, driven police detective who breaks all the rules. Why is it so comical? Let’s paint a picture: Alex Cross is running down a dangerous suspect in one of those ominous abandoned buildings that are so common to major cities [in movies]. You know, the kind where they keep random piles of cinderblocks. Anyway, the movie starts, the chase begins, and… Cue the heavy breathing. Yes, Tyler Perry is winded from the first shot. Look, I’m not in the best shape of my life either, so I’m not poking fun of the guy for having a weight problem, but I probably should be. If he wanted to be an action hero so bad, maybe he could have done a couple sit-ups before showing up on set.
Alex Cross works on a team with Tommy Kane (Edward Burns) and Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols), who are secretly hooking up with each other because they have the same job and they’re both good-looking. That’s about as much as we learn about those characters, but I don’t expect James Patterson or the hired-gun screenwriters thought much more about any of these people beyond how ‘cool’ the names Alex Cross, Tommy Kane, and Monica Ashe are. Oh, well one other thing – Cross and Kane have been best buddies since childhood. This detail is weirdly confusing because it demands that the audience believe these two guys are the same age. In real life, Ed Burns is actually older than Tyler Perry, but it damn sure looks the opposite. And they don’t act like friends, although, to be fair, Tyler Perry has better chemistry with Ed Burns than he does with Carmen Ejogo. Cross tells Kane to stop seeing Monica, because it could “break up the team.” I’m not going to get into the potential coding of the married guy ordering the single dude to stop banging his hot co-worker, because this piece is long enough already.
The establishing scenes are longer than necessary. Like a movie directed by Tyler Perry, there is a lot of talk without much of substance being said. I don’t know if the director and editing crew were feeling sleepy, or if Tyler Perry had some control over the cut, but I do know that it’s a long time before the plot comes in, and it’s pretty fucking boring until then. The plot is a character, a professional killer who comes to be known as “Picasso” because of his completely sensible habit, as a professional killer, of leaving sketches behind at crime scenes, presumably so people like Alex Cross can give him a clever name like “Picasso.” In the province of James Patterson, everyone has an origin out of a 1960s Batman comic.
Picasso is played by Matthew Fox, best known for his roles in television on shows like Lost and Party Of Five. Fox is as committed to the role of Picasso as Tyler Perry is uncommitted to the role of Alex Cross. Maybe too committed. It doesn’t look healthy, what he’s done to himself. Obviously “creepy” is what he was going for, but he overshot. He was aiming for John Doe in SEVEN, but ended up resembling a character out of PAN’S LABYRINTH.
And I hate to harp on the same point, but it’s incredibly jarring to put a guy who obviously spent the last six months living inside a gym against one who obviously hasn’t been to one since middle school. There’s a stark contrast between the film’s two lead characters, and it’s not the one the story wants us invested in. Luckily, Alex Cross doesn’t spend much time on screen with Picasso. In fact, once Picasso appears, the movie splits into two. Part is concerned with Alex Cross and his attempts to track down this latest killer, and the other part spends an unusual amount of time on the killer, as he wins an underground MMA fight, flirts with a foxy rich lady, tortures and kills the foxy rich lady, and targets a band of European drug smugglers led by Jean Reno (who must ache with the memories of having appeared in better movies than this one.)
When Alex Cross and his team get in Picasso’s way, the madman goes on a personal vendetta. He kills Cross’s wife with a sniper rifle, and abducts Cross’s teammate Monica Ashe. Just as he did with the foxy rich lady, he sedates Monica, then sets to torturing her as she lies motionless, unable to do anything to stop him. This Monica Ashe character was set up as a tough chick, able to hang with the guys, yet when it comes right down to it, she’s as much helpless murder fodder as the poor wife character. Rachel Nichols is a capable, believable action lead (unlike Tyler Perry), and a lovely, lovable actress who deserves much, much better than the way she is treated here. A much more effective, believable, satisfying movie would have seen Picasso kill Alex Cross (and not his wife), and have Monica Ashe and Tommy Kane hunt him down.
But we live in a James Patterson world, a Tyler Perry world, so I guess I have to go on summarizing this horseshit.
With all of the women out of the way, ALEX CROSS quickly becomes a boys-and-their-toys movie, which at least is something Rob Cohen knows how to stage. And at least there are some fine actors on hand, such as John C. McGinley (who appeared in the aforementioned SEVEN and is essentially playing the same role here) and Giancarlo Esposito (such a smooth villain on TV’s Breaking Bad, here playing a much more poorly-written version of his crimelord character. He’s an underworld contact Alex Cross uses to get news of Picasso’s doings, and – who the fuck cares at this point, let’s step out of these parentheses.) There are gunfights. There are car chases. There are more gunfights. Picasso shoots off a bazooka. It’s not that cool, unless (like Tyler Perry, probably) you’ve never seen an action movie ever before.
Ultimately, Alex Cross and Picasso have their final showdown, skinny man against fat man in the Laurel and Hardy match-up you’ve been waiting almost a hundred years to see. Yes you have. Tommy Kane is injured in the final chase, so Alex Cross has to go after Picasso alone. He has to chase him down on foot. If you were missing the calamitous spectacle of Tyler Perry running from the opening scene, you’re treated to it one more time. Somehow (the wonders of film editing!) he manages to catch his enemy and they fight it out, but the very floor under them collapses – THE FUCKING FLOOR COLLAPSES. It’s a goddamn fat joke! So Alex Cross is dangling there, hanging on for dear life, and Picasso grabs onto his leg.
Where have we seen this before? Well, a lot of places, almost too many to count, but at the moment I’m thinking of Tim Burton’s first BATMAN movie. A comic book movie. So the climax of ALEX CROSS, this movie that wanted so badly to have a deathly-serious, life-or-death tone, is straight out of a superhero comic. Am I spoiling anything at this point by revealing that the villain falls to his death? At least Burton’s BATMAN ended on a gag. Ed Burns arrives to pull Tyler Perry up (poor Ed) and then, God help me, the movie continues, because they still have to get Jean Reno, the guy who hired Picasso in the first place.
You get the point, though. This movie is a joke – but not on me or you. The joke is on the people who made it with a straight face, and on the (thankfully few) people who consumed it that way. The joke is on James Patterson, a author who writes weightless crime novels in 2013 that are on the cutting edge of 1996. The joke is on Tyler Perry, who surely must see by now that there are some things he just can’t do, like run on film, or carry a serious scene, or look anything other than silly holding a gun, or take over a role that was made famous by Morgan Fucking Freeman.
He has to see that, right?
In conclusion, let us try to reconcile the following:
1. ALEX CROSS was budgeted at more than $35 million. It made back $25 million in the United States.
2. DOUBLE CROSS, the sequel to ALEX CROSS, based on a novel by James Patterson, has been put into production. Tyler Perry is set to return as Alex Cross. No word yet on who’s directing.
I hope they get Tim Burton. I hope. the “DOUBLE” in DOUBLE CROSS refers to an Alex Cross doppelganger. I hope the doppelganger will be portrayed by DIE HARD’s Reginald VelJohnson.
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