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film review

Matthew Fox in a scene from “Alex Cross”Summit Entertainment

Tyler Perry tries to prove that he can do badass all by himself in Alex Cross, in which the playwright-turned-king-of-all-media is cast as a police psychologist tracking a methodical serial killer.

Instead of playing the role in drag, the erstwhile Madea simply is a drag: Perry's attempt at reinterpreting novelist James Patterson's eponymous meal-ticket protagonist – already skillfully played by Morgan Freeman in previous film adaptations Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider – reveals the pitfalls of casting familiar performers in generic material. Stripped down to his undershirt or brandishing an assault rifle, Perry looks both incongruous and ridiculous – an icon out of water.

But he doesn't take the medal for bad acting in Alex Cross, not by a long shot. That prize goes to Matthew Fox, whose ruthless assassin is one of the most implausible movie antagonists in some time: a calculating, sociopathic genius who does MMA fighting in his spare time.

"I suppose that I am having fun," he cackles to Cross during one of their cellphone tête-à-têtes (à la In the Line of Fire, which director Rob Cohen is shameless about ripping off), and while it's hard to tell whether it's the character or the actor talking, the fact is that both are hilarious in spite of themselves. But with its gorier-than-necessary violence and clumsily articulated themes of loss and retribution, it's clear that a comedy wasn't intended here.

Fox's reign of terror begins with the seduction, torture and killing of a hottie (Stephanie Jacobsen) with vague ties to the shadowy money men who have turned Fox's tattooed maniac loose on Detroit for mysterious reasons. Her status as a mere plot point is passed on to other female characters, who exist only as victims-in-waiting – characters whose deaths will need some serious avenging. (The one exception is Cross's mother, played by the great Cicely Tyson in a committed but completely thankless performance.)

The sequence where Cross and his partner, Tommy Kane (Edward Burns), survey the crime scene and exchange terse bits of investigatory argot goes from dully clichéd to stunningly glib when they bicker wearily over who has to use a severed thumb to open a hidden safe: a nasty detail that even CSI would skip over.

From there, the plot beats are as predictable as rush-hour traffic. Cross almost nabs the bad guy during a high-rise shootout, and commits the sin of hubris by telling his superiors that he has his quarry right where he wants him. A couple of scenes later, he is glowering his way through a family funeral and sawing off a shotgun. The trope of the lawman who is forced to reorient his moral compass is older than Dirty Harry, but there is still something distasteful in how willingly Cross and Kane go rogue (assaulting a material witness with a golf club becomes a justifiable MO).

Any reservations about the film's ideology are ultimately subordinate to its simpler and more conspicuous failures, however. A late scene involving a rocket launcher is nicely executed, but a drawn-out final confrontation in a dilapidated building stretches any remaining credibility to the breaking point. The image of Perry desperately hanging by a thread, as if threatening to take the whole structure with him, provides an unfortunately apt emblem for this dismal attempt.