Dir: Rob Cohen. US. 2012. 102mins

Alex Cross

Over the span of seven years, Tyler Perry has become a cottage industry, winning over a reliable fan base by writing, directing, producing and often starring in films known for their melodramatic, feel-good messages. (It’s also not uncommon for these movies to feature Perry’s portrayal of Madea, a sassy elderly woman who’s become his trademark character.) Looking to expand his brand by playing against type, Perry has opted to explore darker terrain by starring in Alex Cross, a serial-killer thriller (based on author James Patterson’s titular psychologist detective) that never rises above a dull competency. 

Perry hasn’t acted in movies he hasn’t created, so naturally there’s a curiosity with Alex Cross about how he’ll handle a star vehicle in which he plays a detective who goes from being brilliantly analytical to a grieving, vengeful loose cannon.

Alex Cross, which will open domestically October 19, represents not just a roll of the dice for Perry but also for distributor Summit, which is no doubt hoping that the filmmaker’s fans will accept him as a leading man in an action-thriller far removed tonally from the films he writes and directs himself.

The Cross character was first portrayed by Morgan Freeman in Kiss The Girls and Along Came A Spider, but considering that the most recent of these films came out 11 years ago — and was hardly a runaway smash — Alex Cross will probably need to rely on Perry’s high profile and Patterson’s readership to acquire midlevel returns. Frankly, it seems likely that the film will find more breathing room on cable and DVD.

This crime thriller, which was directed by Rob Cohen (The Fast And The Furious, XXX), is meant to be an origin story for Cross (Perry), explaining what eventually drove the brilliant detective to move from Detroit to Washington, D.C., the city where Patterson’s Cross novels are set. Working with his partners Thomas Kane (Edward Burns) and Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols), Cross is on the hunt for a serial killer (Matthew Fox) who seems to be targeting Detroit’s rich and powerful. But when the killer (dubbed Picasso because of his penchant for creating abstract charcoal drawings) turns his attention to those close to Cross, our hero becomes emotionally involved in the case in a way that could become dangerous.

Although Perry’s onscreen persona is tied most closely to his frequent stints as Madea, he had played a variety of dramatic characters in his own films, including the Why Did I Get Married? series and the recent Good Deeds. But outside of a brief cameo in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, Perry hasn’t acted in movies he hasn’t created, so naturally there’s a curiosity with Alex Cross about how he’ll handle a star vehicle in which he plays a detective who goes from being brilliantly analytical to a grieving, vengeful loose cannon.

When focusing on scenes with his loving, supporting wife (Carmen Ejogo) or his childhood friend Kane, Perry displays a casual warmth that makes him a likeable, moderately compelling onscreen presence. Unfortunately, once Cross makes the decision to step outside the boundaries of his job to kill Picasso, Perry proves less plausible, overdoing his character’s avenging-angel darkness in such a way that suggests the actor simply doesn’t possess the grit or world-weariness to pull off Cross’s transformation.

To be fair to Perry, though, Alex Cross is not a film that does much to distinguish itself in several ways. The movie’s battle-of-wits setup between Cross and the cold, cruel Picasso is familiar from dozens of other serial-killer showdowns. More irritating, after establishing Cross as a man with incredible powers of deduction, the movie does little to highlight his agile intellect, quickly resorting to shootouts and hand-to-hand fight scenes to build tension. Even when Cohen does manage to stage some somewhat gripping action sequences, the film’s generic genre trappings snuff out the excitement.

As Picasso, Fox delivers one-note bugged-eyed intensity. The actor lost weight to create a muscular, wiry frame for the character, but neither Picasso’s icy detachment nor his ruthless monstrousness will be a surprise to thriller fans. Likewise, the rest of the supporting cast stays within the lines of their humdrum characters, whether it’s Burns’s blue-collar sidekick or Jean Reno’s mysterious, haughty entrepreneur who’s in Picasso’s crosshairs. While Perry no doubt envisions Alex Cross as his opportunity to branch out, the actors around him rightly regard this pedestrian effort as just another gig.

Production companies: Block/Hanson Productions, James Patterson Entertainment, Emmett/Furla Films, Envision Entertainment

Domestic distribution: Summit Entertainment, www.summit-ent.com

International sales: QED International, www.qedintl.com

Producers: Bill Block, Paul Hanson, James Patterson, Steve Bowen, Randall Emmett, Leopaldo Gout

Executive producers: George Furla, Stepan Martirosyan, Remington Chase, Jeff Rice, Ethan Smith, John Friedberg, Christopher Corabi, Jan Kornelin, Marina Grasic, Steven Bocsi

Screenplay: Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson, based on the novel Cross by James Patterson

Cinematography: Ricardo Della Rosa

Editors: Thom Noble, Matt Diezel

Production designer: Laura Fox

Music: John Debney

Website: http://alexcrossmovie.com/

Voice cast: Tyler Perry, Matthew Fox, Edward Burns, Rachel Nichols, Cicely Tyson, Carmen Ejogo, Giancarlo Esposito, John C. McGinley, Jean Reno