(Why) Alex (Can't) Cross (Over)

by Bill Gibron

22 October 2012

Tyler Perry has no established persona. He's not a star, per se. He's a brand. An industry. A debated media topic... but he's not a star in the true sense of the word.
cover art

Alex Cross

Director: Rob Cohen
Cast: Tyler Perry, Matthew Fox, Edward Burns, Rachel Nichols, Cicely Tyson, Carmen Ejogo, Giancarlo Esposito, John C. McGinley, Jean Reno

(Summit Entertainment)
US theatrical: 19 Oct 2012 (General release)
UK theatrical: 30 Nov 2012 (General release)

It’s been Tyler Perry’s problem his entire career. No matter how hard he tries, no matter how far his influence can exceed already established expectations, he still has a near impossible time tapping into the mainstream. Not in all mediums, mind you. Just films. After all, his TV series tend to defy industry precepts to pull in big numbers across the board, and his personal appearances and stage plays still draw huge numbers. But if you look closely at his work in film, you see a ceiling, a limited reach if you will. Before he became a phenomenon, long before he told every angry black woman to diary their dog-like mates, he was viewed as a niche artist serving a decided niche demo. Put another way, he was an known urban quantity serving an ignored ethnic audience eager to support him. Limited appeal. Limited legs beyond.

Of course, no one outside the pundits really cares/cared. As long as he could maintain minimal budgets ($5 to $20 million) and three to four times the return upon release, he was golden. He was sainted. He was the most powerful and profitable man in Hollywood. But no artist works in a vacuum. They want their work seen by as many people as possible. For Perry, that meant reaching out beyond the decidedly African American segment of the population that prefers his work. It means finding an ancillary series or franchise that, while never taking away from his core audience, would expand his already obvious influence. The answer, it seemed, was James Patterson’s character, Alex Cross.
With a rich backstory and 18 novels to choose from, it was a good idea. On the downside, many already believed the famed policeman turned FBI agent was already owned by another actor - Morgan Freeman. In 1997, the Oscar winner played the role alongside Ashley Judd in the surprise hit Kiss the Girls. In 2001, he returned for Along Came a Spider. While both films where successful, few saw their future as a series. Then, in 2010, someone got the idea for an Alex Cross “reboot.” British actor Idris Elba was chosen to star, and Pitch Black/ A Perfect Getaway‘s David Twohy was picked to direct. Then things got dicey and both men dropped out. Enter seasoned joke/journeymen Rob Cohen (Stealth, The Fast and the Furious). With Perry now associated with the project, people in high places started to get excited.

It was premature enthusiasm. By all accounts, the resulting movie is a mess. It’s violence, sadistic, stupid, and sloppily handled. Cohen can’t seem to find the proper tone or approach and while Perry is passable, he’s just not the hardboiled detective type. Currently sitting in the low teens at Rotten Tomatoes, it is clear that critics didn’t think much of the final cut. But they don’t matter, right? Perry has never EVER been given a fair shake by snobby, so-called journalists, isn’t that right? Indeed, for many, the only real indication of a Perry film’s success or failure is opening weekend box office figures. That goofy, pot smoking, gun toting battleaxe Madea may never get a decent word from the experts, but the people vote with their dollars, and the drag act always brings them in.   

In this case, however, said polling has proven poisonous. Alex Cross barely earned $12 million over the three day weekend, making it the worst opening for any Perry film, ever. Even more disconcerting, word of mouth was vicious, reducing the film down to a bad (and bloody) b-movie take on the typical killer on the loose conceit. Naturally, those wanting to see their hero do his typical serio-comedy cautionary tale shtick had to go in knowing that Alex Cross contained none of that. No hot grits to the face. No smacking little “chill-rin” in the face. No “He-lurrrr.” No, Perry wanted to cross over, to become known not only for his pro-God preaching, but his ability to reach a wider, less inclined audience. And he failed.

Now the question becomes why? Why did Alex Cross fail and why can’t Perry reach the mainstream? Well, there are several answers, many of which were apparently ignored when the time came to shout “Roll ‘em!” Primary among them are the realities of the man’s current career. For all intents and purposes, Perry is nothing more than his phenom status. He’s yet to make a movie that many feel will endure, and for the most part, he has been recycling the plots of his already wildly successful stage plays to fuel his consistent creativity. This means he’s working from a limited pool of resources. Once they dry up, all he will have left is Madea…and the shelf life on that sass mouthed senior is about to expire.

Even worse, as stated before, Perry is viewed as a niche within a niche, especially among those outside his sphere of influence. Urban comedies, like Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, Friday, and Barber Shop have always been able to reach across the entire African American cultural divide, bringing in a few-to-many outside the racial loop along the way. Not Perry’s films. They appeal to certain mindset within the already small community, an “old school, anti-rap” contingent that believes in the Good Book, corporal punishment, and the remnants of the Civil Rights Movement. Call it an older, more mature audience, or perhaps a more Christian, politically active contingent, but these are the types who will instantly run out to see the man in a skirt. They’ve proven to Perry that Madea means money…and that’s about it.

The other aspect is a bit more tricky. Perry has no established persona. He’s not a star, per se. He’s a brand. An industry. A debated media topic…but he’s not a star in the true sense of the word. He doesn’t have the appeal of a Will Smith, or the gravitas of Freeman. He’s not funny like Chris Rock or as versatile as Elba. Instead, he’s a one note novelty that continues to crank out said narrow craft until someone at Lionsgate realizes the bottom and top lines no longer meet. At some point, a Madea movie will underperform, horribly, or a proposed hit will hobble, and Perry will become an afterthought, a ‘thanks but no thanks,’ a trivia question on a 2022 episode of Jeopardy. He’s not about enduring. He’s about entertainment…and easy money.

So Alex Cross was a joke right from the very start. Thrillers are never universal in their appeal (think family films - right, Ice Cube? - or comedies) and this one was a particularly hard sell. There was no buzz, no pre-release build-up. Had Perry wanted to break out and become a mainstream hero, he had a better chance with his bit part in J. J. Abrams’ blockbuster Star Trek series than he did here. Unless he has the chops to really turn on the Method acting, he was bound to fail, destined to be downplayed and derided since he can’t seem to get beyond the novelty stage, even when he’s not trying. As an empire, he’s untouchable. As a name, he’s beyond known. But Tyler Perry is not really an actor. He’s an act…and one that’s yet to move beyond is already well worn and established niche.

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