- - Thursday, October 18, 2012

“Alex Cross” is a strictly by-the-numbers thriller — a detective on his way to a desk job takes after a sadistic high-profile killer, and things quickly get personal. There is something bracing and even refreshing about its honesty, though, in its willingness to execute tired cop-film cliches unapologetically, without any hint of a knowing wink.

It’s a movie that never pretends to be anything it is not. Here’s what I am, take it or leave it, is its message to the audience.

I’d leave it. The film’s self-confidence is admirable. The rest of it is not.

Based on James Patterson’s novel “Cross,” the movie follows Detroit police detective Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) as he tracks down a particularly violent and skilled assassin nicknamed the Butcher (Matthew Fox) who is targeting a group of wealthy foreign businessmen.

Cross is a burly, serious man who is good in a fight. He also is a psychologist who recently accepted a gig with the FBI as a profiler. He’s the kind of detective who has the spooky ability to get inside the minds of the killers he’s tracking, which turns out to mean he has the mysterious ability to intuit complicated plot points without nearly enough information.

Cross is joined by a handful of allies within the department, including his loyal partner Tommy (Edward Burns), his gruff, scenery-chewing commander Richard (John C. McGinley), and tough-talking detective Monica (Rachel Nichols). Each plays a stock cop-film character, and each adds exactly nothing to it. Which is pretty much the approach the film takes throughout. There are interludes of meaningless “CSI”-style exposition, arguments with the boss about procedure, and love interests that conveniently complicate the detectives’ professional lives.

Indeed, the movie’s commitment to stringing together old detective thriller cliches is almost impressive. The whole thing plays like the result of a movie studio experiment designed to produce a laboratory-pure generic cop movie.

Part of the issue is the source material. Mr. Patterson’s novels are team-written products that resemble young-adult detective serials like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew more than they do traditional high-profile thrillers. The difference, of course, is that his novels are written for adults, and so include a lot more graphic sex and violence — and, as often as not, highly sexualized violence.

The movie alters the book’s story and characters substantially, but it still successfully replicates the novel’s mix of saccharine sentimentality and gratuitous violence.

The vast majority of that violence is dished out by Mr. Fox’s Butcher. He’s a blend of movie bad guys — a slick, leering psychopath who, for no particular reason, pronounces himself “fascinated” by pain. He explains this to a victim, but it’s the audience who ought to heed the warning. “Alex Cross” is equally shameless about inflicting pain on its viewers. But at least it’s honest about it.

★½

TITLE: “Alex Cross”

CREDITS: Directed by Rob Cohen; screenplay by Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson

RATED: PG-13 for torture, violence, language

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

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