Tyler Perry stars in "Alex Cross." (Summit Entertainment )
Dr. Alex Cross isn't the kind of guy who should need a comeback. The hero in novelist James Patterson's book series, Cross is a formidable detective, an African American family man who uses his training as a psychologist to track down society's baddest seeds.
But Friday's new movie about the crime fighter, "Alex Cross," could be his hardest case yet. Not only is it a test of actor Tyler Perry's appeal beyond his own brand of comedies, but also of director Rob Cohen ("The Fast and the Furious") and Patterson himself, who kicked in millions to back the movie when its financing fell apart.
Outside of Patterson's bestselling novels, Cross has anchored two earlier movie thrillers, both with Morgan Freeman playing the sleuth in 1997's "Kiss the Girls" and in 2001's "Along Came a Spider."
At one point, "Alex Cross" was going to star Idris Elba ("The Wire") in a story about the detective's pursuit of a particularly merciless assassin. But movie business economics cost Elba the job: Perry can sell tickets and Elba can't.
"Idris is great, but I don't know if he can open a movie," Patterson said.
The Perry alternative was provocative, if not a bit of a reach. Perry's movies, which he typically directs, produces, writes and stars in, are hugely popular with African American moviegoers, generally grossing about $50 million in the U.S. and Canada. Unlike "Alex Cross," however, Perry's films ("Madea's Family Reunion" and its sequels, "Why Did I Get Married?") are lowbrow domestic comedies, often with Perry in drag, and generate negligible international returns. He's a cottage industry, in other words, but is he really a movie star?
"Tyler was looking to do something different," said Bill Block, whose QED International co-financed "Alex Cross," which Summit Entertainment is releasing. "And this has the possibility of becoming a franchise."
To give "Alex Cross" more commercial appeal, especially overseas, QED hired Cohen to direct. In addition to launching the lucrative "Fast and the Furious" car-racing franchise at Universal Pictures, the 63-year-old filmmaker made "XXX" and earlier in his career had produced a number of 1970s movies starring black actors, including "The Wiz," "Mahogany" and "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings." Yet one of his more recent efforts, 2005's "Stealth," was a spectacular dud, and Cohen's "Medieval" and 3-D "XXX" sequel both imploded over budget and creative issues.
"I did this because I needed to reinvent myself," Cohen said. "After two big movies at two big studios fell apart, I said to myself, 'There has to be another way to get a movie made.'" For the first time in a career that has spanned more than 30 productions, Cohen decided to make an independent film.
As written by Patterson, Cross is far closer to Perry's age (the actor is 43) than Freeman (who is now 75). What's more, Perry has the build of a football player — albeit one who doesn't hit the gym that often — and more importantly, immense goodwill among African American audiences. Block, Patterson and Cohen made their case to Perry at his Atlanta headquarters in late 2010, pitching him on the "Alex Cross" script (credited to Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson) that is not closely based on any one book. "I didn't know if Tyler would ever be interested in the movie," Patterson said. But he was.
"He said that he wanted to change it up," Cohen recalled, "and that he would lose weight to get in better shape." Patterson said he was impressed with Perry's determination. "He said, 'I would not attempt this if I didn't think I could pull it off,'" the writer noted. (Perry declined to be interviewed.)
Pulling together the film's $23-million budget — a sharp discount from Cohen's last film, 2008's $165-million "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" — was a separate challenge. When about $5 million of the movie's financing vanished late in the game, Patterson stepped in, filling the void with his own money. The picture, which costars Ed Burns, Jean Reno and Matthew Fox, was shot in just 40 days in Ohio and Michigan to take advantage of tax credits, and a concluding scene set in Bali was shot at Cohen's vacation home there to save money.
"I thought it was a total no-brainer," the novelist said of backing his own movie. "I knew we had a star in Tyler. I knew the script could work. And I knew that Rob was very hungry to have a hit."
Audience tracking surveys show that "Alex Cross" will likely be clobbered this weekend by "Paranormal Activity 4." The real measure of the film's success can't be measured by this weekend alone, however. The ultimate test will be whether "Alex Cross" travels beyond Perry's core audience and reaches the broader crime drama fan base as well as overseas patrons; the film opens in several major international markets next month.
Cohen is confident it will, and that Perry doesn't get enough credit for his acting and potential to be an action star. In one fight scene, the actor accidentally punches Fox, who was shaken by the shot.
"Comedy is a lot harder than drama," the director said. "And I am confident Tyler's fan base will follow him. They have a great deal of loyalty for him."
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