Some movies make it to theaters, and you don’t know why. Nothing works. Or some of it works, but that doesn’t matter because what’s working is so deeply, painfully boring. “Alex Cross’’ is that kind of movie. If I hadn’t had to stay awake, I would have slept though the whole thing. At home. This is an attempt to revive a blockbuster publishing franchise — James Patterson’s Alex Cross crime novels — with Tyler Perry replacing Morgan Freeman. Perry, who already has a kind of franchise with his Madea movies, would be better served to let her do the detective work in these films. I, at least, smell “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Crime Scene.’’
Perry is a big, broad man. In “Alex Cross,’’ when he gets out of bed shirtless to take an emergency call, it’s like watching a tree go for a walk. That’s part of what makes Madea such a hoot. When she launches herself at somebody, you marvel at how the persona confers a kind of lightness on all his heft. As Alex Cross, when Perry falls on a perp, the only response is, “Timber!’’
For “Kiss the Girls’’ and “Along Came a Spider,’’ Morgan Freeman brought a lot of his Morgan Freeman-ness to the table. The reason you wanted to see him as a generic forensic psychologist-detective is that he has the perfect persona for that sort of trench-coated, know-it-all part. No killer can outsmart him. He’s too cool, too wise. He could just narrate evil into prison.
When Perry’s not in drag, there’s no persona. He’s smooth and stoic the way Freeman can be, but he’s missing Freeman’s wisdom without replacing that with something of his own. Freeman gets a kick out of himself. Perry gets a kick out of Madea.
Even in his own movies, Perry’s a void. This past February, he spent all of “Good Deeds,’’ which he also wrote and directed, channeling Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense.’’ He seems less clinically dead in “Alex Cross.’’ But you worry that Perry’s too self-conscious to be a more than serviceable leading man.
When Alex diagnoses the assassin nut job (Matthew Fox) as a “stimulus-seeking sociopathic narcissist,’’ it sounds like Perry’s interviewing for a job he already has. The movie’s finale suggests this is only the beginning. So did the applause that broke out the night I saw this movie. Those people must have felt like they were in bed, watching a Steven Seagal movie on Showtime 14. Except with Cicely Tyson as Nana Mama, a woman who gets to make dinner, be grandmotherly, and say to Alex, “Boy, get your feet off my bench!’’
Alex spends most of the movie talking to his childhood friend and fellow detective, John Sampson (Edward Burns). They both get some bad romantic news on the same day and devote the rest of the movie to trying to bring down Fox’s not-so-terrifying killer. “Alex Cross’’ is adapted from the 12th book in Patterson’s series, the succinctly titled “Cross.’’ The movie, which Rob Cohen directed, is somehow less original. People complained that “Kiss the Girls’’ and “Along Came a Spider’’ were cheap, “Silence of the Lambs’’ knockoffs (they were). This new movie is like one of those Liam Neeson “quit taking my stuff’’ thrillers, but without the slickness, defensive macho insanity, or Neeson’s incongruous gravitas. There’s also stuff from almost every movie about a psycho stalking a lawman. But Fox is so jazzed up by his fatless body that he fails to be persuasively out-there. It’s like P90X was his acting coach.
The entire movie is set in Detroit instead of Patterson’s Washington, D.C., and it’s been filmed in anonymous, abandoned places that say, “Please, film here. Put these crumbling warehouses and factory spaces back to work!’’ The plot involves a globalist plan hatched by a French businessman (Jean Reno) — along with a catty German and lusty Chinese woman — to revitalize the city with such ideas as nanotechnology. The nutjob has them each in his figurative crosshairs. If this were a film with even a gram of adventure or perspective, it might seize on any sabotage of Detroit as either a tragic attempt to keep a city choked off from rehabilitation or crazy national pride (“We don’t need your stinking internationalist stimulus. We just need to build more cars!’’). Of course, if this movie realized either of those possibilities, it would either be “Shaft 7’’ or another Clint Eastwood commercial for Chrysler. But it’s greedy to want thematic ambition from a movie this badly made. Two minutes of even competent camerawork during the climactic showdown is asking too much.