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10 Moments of Hidden Social Commentary in 'Alex Cross'

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Oct 21, 2012 | 7:37am EDT

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Run-of-the-mill thrillers rarely get the respect they deserve. On the surface, they appear as straightforward murder mysteries, showy texts with nothing to say except for what they're bluntly saying.

This article contains many spoilers for Alex Cross — beware!

That's why this weekend's Alex Cross is worthy of a deeper examination. We here at Hollywood.com took out our fine-toothed combs to put the rebooted detective story under a microscope. What we discovered is that the film is one of the most complex "essay films" of the year. Alex Cross isn't just a James Patterson adaptation, Tyler Perry's titular character not simply a pawn in a simplistic "chase to find the killer" routine. The movie has something more to say — whether it actually did or not when the filmmakers put it all together is besides the point. Here are ten moments of commentary that turn Alex Cross into 2012's most successful piece of outsider art:

1. The Expendability of People

Alex Cross introduces three major characters in its opening fast-paced chase scene: the title hero, his partner and lifelong best friend Tommy Kane (Ed Burns), and their young colleague (and the latter’s love interest) Monica (Rachel Nichols). Midway through the film, Monica is tortured and killed by the psychotic Picasso, mere moments before he also does away with Cross’ pregnant wife Maria. And while the scenes to follow feature a wake and some subdued for the latter, nobody ever really brings up Monica again. A once apparently prominent element of the film cast away forever as soon as someone even more important dies, leaving no mark on the Earth whatsoever. We’re all going to die eventually. We’re all going to be forgotten. No matter how significant our lives might seem, we all end up as dust in the wind.

2. Homogeneity of Pop Culture

People have "likes" and "dislikes," entertainment preferences that define them just as much as their physical features or hertiage. But Alex Cross damns those invested in film, TV, and even literature when it haphazardly (and purposefully) slips in allusions to other texts – often with little connection to one another. One minute Tommy is calling Alex "Gandalf," for being a wizard of detectiving, the next, he's jumping to a Harry Potter reference: "why don't you tell us Muggles what's going on?" Whatever we thought defined us in the world of pop culture has been diluted by branding. As Alex Cross makes clear, we seek enjoyment from an inherent sameness.

3. The Nutritive Habits of the Working Class

Cross, Kane, and Monica head on over to the home of the affluent Frenchman Leon Mercier, whom they have determined to be Picasso’s next victim. While awaiting his attendance in the sitting room of the mansion, Mercier’s coked-up employee approaches and offers the lot something to eat (repeatedly). Whereas the average films would simply have its characters reject the offer without an explanation why — or at least, without a specific explanation — Cross informs the persistent young woman that he and his colleagues stopped for McDonald’s before arriving. So why throw this into the script? As a promotion for a sponsoring chain? Or, perhaps, a commentary on the class distinction between corporate giant Mercier (who can afford a vast array of delicacies) and the underpaid Detroit police officers, who sustain on fast food without even enough time for a proper lunch break. Does the writing of James Patterson inherently call for Marxist subtexts, or was that an addition for the film?

4. Desperation for Nostalgia

Actor Giancarlo Esposito makes a one-scene appearance in Alex Cross and his very entrance speaks volumes. There's no skirting around it: Esposito is now deeply connected to his Emmy-nominated run on Breaking Bad. Director Rob Cohen knows we can't separate it from our minds, so he fully embraces the connection to overwhelm the "now" and provoke our thirst for the "has been." Esposito's character continually refers to the "The Chemist" while speaking to Alex. Immediately, our minds fill with images of Walter White — "when is that show coming back on?" We are incapable of living in the moment. Cohen pushes it even further when Esposito's character leads Alex to an old fashioned car, where they will conduct mob business. Nothing in the present can satisfy.

5. The Collective Writings of Sigmund Freud in 60 Seconds

Former psychologist Alex Cross delves deep into the psyche of his pursued killer. But he doesn’t hone in on one specific theory for Picasso’s derangement: he covers all of ‘em. Narcissist. Sociopath. Hates his mother, hates his father, hates the world. Phrases and terms like these are spat out in an ominous minute-long monologue delivered by Tyler Perry, prompting his chief to pick the only one he can remember and assign it to the case officially. Ah, the arbitrariness of the insanity label. The interchangeability of diagnoses. We’re all crazy—that’s what Alex Cross is saying. All messed up from the inside out. Any fancy names we assign to this psychotica, well, those are just for show.

6. Society's Views on Ethnicities

People of the 21st century perceive themselves as progressive, yet Alex Cross acts as a mirror showing us the ugly side of humanity's current prejudice. The film never shies away from a good ethnic caricature: from a raging German man, screaming and pounding on his desk, to an appearance of French actor Jean Reno. Reno only has to speak to send the audience into a fit of laughter, the contrast of his voice to the Americanized world around him. alex crossAlex Cross could be guilty of mining comedy from the diversity of its cast, but a deeper read suggests the film is aware of how the foreign cast members integration act as stiumli for the audiences own self-reflection.

7. The Relevance of Nerd Culture

Instead of casting normal looking human beings to play the Detroit police department's crack team of computer experts, the filmmakers behind Alex Cross make the bold choice to fill the roles with two caricatured dorks straight out of Revenge of the Nerds' Lambda Lambda Lambda fraternity. With only a few short lines, the duo's nerd iconography not only suggests that "geek" has become mainstream, but that the even geekier sect of geekdom — i.e. the Reddit community, vocal Comic Con-goers, and the troops of online army"ANON" — are the puppetmasters of today's society. Alex Cross solves a mystery, but in the end, who really solved it?

8. We Are All Robots

Free will is a myth. The human race is comprised of people carrying out pre-programmed tasks — be they programmed by DNA or the environment is the big question. But we all wind up in a rut, operating within the parameters that are inevitably deemed our own. Around the climax of Alex Cross, we meet a nameless policeman with a strictly regulated set of behaviors. He enters a frame, quips something idiomatic about his observations, and then leaves abruptly. After multiple exhibitions of this pattern, we understand the message: none of us is really living. We’re all just carrying out the programs instilled in us by our genes, or jobs, or whatever higher power might control us. And as it does with this poor sap, this type of routine will eventually be what does us in for good. If only he could think for himself and get the hell out of there…

9. The Ambiguity of Morality

Alex Cross is consistently shown to disregard the law. To disregard civil rights, even. And the big conclusion at the end of the movie: he operates against ethics and has the brains behind Picasso, one Leon Mercier, killed by firing squad after planting a trunk of cocaine on him. The endeavor earns Cross a long, solemn, silent stare from Kane, before the latter shrugs it all off with the remark: “We got him.” They sure did. Maybe they had to play dirty to do so. Maybe they had to resort to the vilest operandi imaginable. But they won. Machiavelli would be proud of you, Alex.

10. The Death of Film

Many recent essays have lamented the death of film, but no commentary compares to Alex Cross' definitive statement. In a moment that lasts no more than a second or two, Alex takes a stumble during a foot chase through the project room of a abandoned-movie-theater-turned-car-park and lands with a thud on top of a knoted mess of celluloid. The frames are decrepit and brown, collecting dust for years as the theater rested without an audience. Alex Cross owns its own destiny: in its attempts to entertain, it is signal that "cinema" is a thing of the past.

[Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment (2)]

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