“Can you stop talking about politics and be a cop, please?” Detective Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) snaps at his boss, high-ranking cop Richard Brookwell (John C. McGinley) near the end of Alex Cross, an adaptation of James Patterson’s novel Cross, about a brilliant, African-American detective. In the immediate context, Cross is asking his boss to be more aggressive in his efforts to protect Leon Mercier (Jean Reno), an industrialist who is heading up the Detroit Fund, a major effort to revitalize the failing city, from Picasso (Matthew Fox), a dedicated and unnervingly skilled assassin. But much of Alex Cross raises the question of what it means to be a pop cultural cop at a deeper level, and reaches some disturbing answers.
In movies and television, being a detective or beat cop has often meant that you can break rules, beat or threaten suspects, shoot people and almost always get away with it after a semblance of a review—and even if you don’t, you can retain the audience’s sympathies. In Alex Cross, it also means that you can beat your colleagues, steal evidence, drop a murderer off a roof rather than bring him to trial, and frame someone for a death penalty offense without regret or compunction. From a liberal perspective, it’s always made sense to be skeptical of glamorizations of this kind of power for reasons of both self-protection and principle. There’s no question that much of the popular appeal of tough cops lies in the fact that their violence and corruption is deployed against people who are coded as distasteful or decadent, be they people of color who are presented as gang-bangers or terrorists, or hippies who are harbingers of anarchy a la Dirty Harry. And while it’s easier to dismiss these violations of the order when these tactics are turned on people we’ve been taught to hate and fear by people movies and television tell us we can trust, if we bother to think clearly, it’s awful to imagine that brutality straying beyond what we’ve defined as acceptable targets—which should tell us how awful it no matter who is the subject of renegade police violence.
Alex Cross spends a great deal of time establishing its titular character as someone we can trust to deploy violence, and to transgress the rules that constrain him in his work as a police detective. He believes in rehabilitation and innocence, visiting a young prisoner who’s taken the rap for two murders committed by her uncle, who tells him “You can’t save everybody, Doctor Cross,” only to have him remind her that “I’m not trying to save everybody. I’m just trying to save you.” He is an intellectual, a man who plays chess in the prison yard by starlight, and who offers his daughter suggestions for how to improvise during her piano practice. He is a loving father, one who is delighted when he finds out his wife is unexpectedly pregnant, and plans to transfer to a desk job with the FBI so he’ll be able to earn a better living and stop risking his own safety on the streets. He is affectionate with his mother-in-law, Mama (Cicely Tyson), who appears to be channeling Ruby Dee’s performance as the mother of drug lord Frank Lucas in American Gangster, if with somewhat staticky reception. If nothing else, it’s a virtue that Alex Cross makes so transparent the process of cinematically signaling who is a legitimate employer of extreme violence and legal manipulation and who is a legitimate target of those abuses.
The targets, in this case, are a constellation of decadent white men, and two Asian women the movie treats with astonishingly callous disregard. The first of these men is Picasso, who enters the movie by putting himself on a card for a cage fight that’s being held in an abandoned church, and betting heavily on his own performance. If that weren’t enough of a signifier that Picasso has deviated from commonly-held sensibilities and morality, he’s swiftly revealed to be a sexual sadist. Picasso takes home an attractive Asian woman he met at the fight, but when they’re in bed, he asks her “Do you like it?” When she says yes, he tells her “Well, I can’t have that,” and proceeds to paralyze her and cut off her fingers one by one to torture information out of her. “There is no way it takes all ten fingers,” Cross’s partner and boyhood friend Tommy (Edward Burns) declares at the crime scene the next day. “The other nine were for fun,” Cross tells him. That they later make a macabre joke out of using her severed fingers to open her safe apparently isn’t meant to sully our respect or affection for Tommy and Alex, though we are, of course, supposed to be revolted at the man who committed the initial violence against her.
In addition to Picasso, there is Erich Nunemacher (Werner Daehn), a prissy Frenchman surrounded by butch German bodyguards who snaps at Alex, Tommy, and their colleague Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols) when they come to protect him from Picasso that “Nonsense! This building is impenetrable. Kill them, Klaus!” and later hits on Monica, telling her “It was very sexy to be saved by a beautiful woman.” He’s a coward who locked her out of his safe room in the first place, in contrast with a real man like Tommy, who insists on being let out from behind the blast door to fight with her. And Erich’s boss, Leon, makes the movie’s implied distaste for the two men explicit. “You must find it unpalatable to be sworn to protect a man like me, rich and spoiled,” he tells Cross, after boasting about his ring, “My only vanity. 14 carats. It was given to me by the king of Cambodia.” The movie doesn’t do much to push back on Leon’s assumption because there’s too much truth in it. If Leon and Erich weren’t pitching a plan to dramatic plan to rebuild Detroit’s industrial base through a huge investment fund, whose nanotechnology and clean energy projects are constantly contrasted with Ford and Cadillac logos and the facade of the General Motors headquarters, I’m not sure Alex Cross would even have gestured to the idea that they deserve police protection at all.
When Cross himself is personally touched by the violence that Picasso is visiting on his city, the movie lets Mama make a token protest against the damage that retaliation would do his body and soul, a speech that comes after a grim and formally correct church funeral, complete with a gospel choir. “Now look at you, self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner,” she tries to shame him, before making a more practical appeal. “For shame! You’re going to go out there and get yourself killed…Don’t you walk out that door!” Whether intentional or not, it’s an explicit contrast with American Gangster, in which Mama Lucas’s question “Do you want to make things so bad for your family that they’ll leave you? Because they will,” proves prescient and presages Frank’s decision to work with the scrupulous detective and night-school attorney, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), who arrested and then prosecutes him. That movie also drew strong parallels between Roberts and Trupo, a corrupt detective played with marvelous menace by Josh Brolin, who ultimately commits suicide as Roberts’ investigation circles closer to his involvement with Lucas’s drug business.
But Cross, we’ve been told repeatedly, is in the justice business rather than a dirty trade like drugs. And as a result, the movie argues that Cross can go after Picasso and his backers with lethal conviction, but without tipping over into the vale of perpetual thuggery. He may don a doo-rag to punch out the white, middle-aged cop who is guarding the evidence locker at his precinct, the criminal alluded to in Cross’s prison visit, Daramus Holiday (an utterly wasted Giancarlo Esposito) may tell him “My, my. You are far off the reservation.” But when he suggests that Cross is “a real gangster,” he’s wrong. Other men may be irredeemably tainted by their exercise of extreme violence and disregard for due process, but Cross remains a man who can return to his family home to help his mother-in-law and daughter pack for a move to a place where he can take better care of them. His bender hasn’t kept him from that FBI job, and it doesn’t keep him from being a good, loving father.
It’s one of the highest privileges pop culture confers on people, to have their use of extreme violence go unquestioned, and for them to escape their use of it without damage to their souls. Alex Cross is a reminder of why, while redistribution of that privilege might feel like justice, we’re better off aiming to dismantle it, no matter the color of the hand that holds the gun.