You know how it goes with the collective consciousness in Tinseltown.
An executive is sitting around the 6th Street Cafe on Montana, and gets an idea. Simultaneously, up PCH in the shower of a Malibu stilt-house, another executive gets the same idea. Ten minutes later, three other executives at a margarita brunch come up with the idea too.
And thus, one of the weird trends in film-making is born – the same kind of freak occurrence, like a hurricane, that bring us squalls of the same sort of film in the same season: Friends With Benefits coming out right next door to No Strings Attached, or Insidious and The Haunting in Connecticut, and so on.
This holiday season, the trend is to seize the high-profile anti-heroes of crime fiction and stick them up on the screen.
Some, like Alex Cross, feature characters who are no stranger to the box office. The same goes for Parker, Jason Statham’s latest vehicle. And some, like Jack Reacher, are yet to feature in a blockbuster.
But bust blocks they will in the near future. No grand conspiracy is to blame. Hollywood’s usual phobia of competing projects is cast aside. Now we’re stuck with reviewing three big names in crime fiction retooled for the screen.
Here’s our roundup. We’ll start with what I expect to be the weakest link.
My first impression of Alex Cross is that it would be an adrenaline overdose laced into a formulaic thriller plot. The trailer introduced it to me with a cascade of explosions, melodrama and absolutely unrealistic scenes and characters. Nothing I’ve read or heard about it since has changed this sorry outlook.
The Skinny: Alex Cross is about, well, Alex Cross – the premiere character of many Alex Patterson novels, a forensic specialist who hunts serial killers. The work it’s based on, Cross, has a prequel element to it. I have no idea if the movie sustains this – or any element of the novel – because it looks utterly different from the plot of the book. What we do know is that Alex Cross is tasked to track down a serial killer so absurd that he makes Hannibal Lecter look plausible – “Picasso,” a special-forces-trained, super-organized, hi-tech sexual sadist. Picasso catches wise to Cross on his trail and takes the fight to Cross, his fellow cops and his family.
The Pros: The upside to this action film in thriller’s clothing is all potential. Tyler Perry, who plays Cross, can deliver a good performance. Matthew Fox, Picasso, can convey some striking intensity. In sum, a few things could go well. This pales before the many, many things we know will have all the quality of a Burger King value menu.
The Cons: Where to begin? First off, we have a sado-masochistic serial killer flick that’s rated PG-13. That’s a heavy subject to water down so much that the MPAA finds it palatable for teens. Then we add in all the ridiculous ’80s-action aspects: The superhumanly proficient villain, the countless explosions, the use of SCUBA gear, the mixed martial arts scenes and the lines of overly dramatic dialogue that ring like a twelve-year-old wrote them. For a character who has already been portrayed with sophistication and subtle plotting by Morgan Freeman in a pair of films, Along Came A Spider and Kiss The Girls, Alex Cross seems a pitiful decline for this already mainstream property.
Reacher is more my kind of protagonist than Cross, but that’s not saying much. He’s the Hercules of crime fiction – a larger-than-life, over-the-top instrument of righteous vengeance that’s more myth than man. That kind of broad-brush character makes for a compelling story, but proves to have feet of clay when it comes to realism. Still, like Schwarzenegger’s “John Matrix” in Commando, this kind of buffed-up bad boy has undeniable charm. He’s the vessel for our power fantasies, and Lee Childs, his creator, makes no bones about it.
The Skinny: Jack Reacher draws from a single work, One Shot, for its plot. Unlike Alex Cross, it could cleave close to the original story of Reacher acting outside the law to pursue a murderous sniper on the loose in the US of A. This isn’t exactly the kind of true-grit and intricacy of The Departed or Killing Them Softly, so we can’t expect deep human drama. But as a cavalcade of ultra-violence, it fits the action-hungry appetite of audiences nicely.
The Cons: For a film named after its famous hero, Jack Reacher is already drawing fire for its choice of casting. The mountainous shoes of the six-foot-five Reacher are filled by the five-foot-six Tom Cruise. This has irked its core demographic – the followers of Reacher’s seventeen novels and two short stories – for the most part. It also calls realism into question all the more. Whether Cruise can pull off the kind of menace that Childs’ blond giant is capable of remains to be seen.
The Pros: Jack Reacher‘s current con might turn out to be its biggest pro. Cruise brings more than just inimitable star power to the project. He’s also able to dominate key roles despite low expectations, as with Valkyrie, Rock of Ages and the Mission: Impossible flicks. Lowering the bar seems to only make his performance soar higher with critics. The project also has an ace up its sleeve in the form of its screenwriter and director, Christopher McQuarrie. The Usual Suspects and The Way of the Gun are McQuarrie’s best known projects, and rightly so – he nails the crime genre like few others. Putting him in the director’s seat is a bold move, and that too remains to be borne out. If the example of another outstanding crime screenwriter, David Ayer, is any evidence, McQuarrie could deliver a blockbuster worthy of the box office.
Of all the films listed, we know the least about Parker, yet his character is best known to the true addicts of the crime genre. Parker is the archetype of the outlaw hero – not just a hero who breaks the law; an actual criminal with a rigid moral code. Featured as the center of 24 novels by Donald Westlake and fistful of other movies, Parker has established his mark as a classic between the covers and on the screen.
The Skinny: Jason Statham is manning the main character this time, and should find himself comfortable. Just about every starring character he’s played – from The Transporter to Crank to Safe – has been a reflection of Parker, a bad guy who’s actually a white hat at heart. In Parker, Statham is betrayed by his fellow thieves and left for dead, only to return on a path of revenge that hooks him up with J-Lo and has him rampaging around the South.
The Cons: Plainly put – a low bar. Don’t expect a Godfather out of this, or even a Point Blank. Parker isn’t about artistry – it’s loaded with journeymen talent that are known for reliably delivering a B+ product. Statham has never aimed for Oscars, but can bring satisfying grit with the best of them. The same goes for Parker‘s director, Taylor Hackford. Present of the Directors Guild, Hackford has been a steady source of quality cinema since the ’70s, such as An Officer and a Gentleman, Dolores Claiborne and Proof of Life. These aren’t bad films – they specialize in being surprisingly good. But it’s doubtful that Parker is going to go down as a crime classic like its Parker-inspired predecessor, Point Blank.
The Pros: Like I say, Parker can hardly fail to be pleasing to watch. From the perfect fit of Statham to the solid record of Hackford, this flick is die-cut “pretty good” material. It may not have the potential of a Jack Reacher, but it doesn’t smack of a flop either. I would bank on Parker being a solid investment of time and money, for audiences and its Hollywood backers alike.