Whenever I blather on about the death of the mainstream, mid-budget, star-driven thriller, the prime example that comes to mind is the Alex Cross franchise. Paramount used to thrive on said pot-boilers, and two of the more successful entries were adaptations of two books in James Patterson's long-running Alex Cross series. I can't count the number of times my wife has casually asked me why Paramount didn't make more. Aside from whether or not star Morgan Freeman was interested, the best I could figure is that a regime change took hold at Paramount, and the new bosses wanted in on the mega-blockbuster game. After all, why spend $50 million and hope to gross $100 million worldwide, when you could spend $150 million, and hope to God that you made at least $300 million worldwide? Well, it appears that saner heads have prevailed, as psychologist/detective/federal agent/super hero Alex Cross is returning to the big screen. And taking over for Morgan Freeman is Idris Elba, a respected character actor from The Wire, The Office, and several film turns (Daddy's Little Girls, The Losers, 28 Weeks Later, etc) who is about to become a superstar.
Paramount made two films adapted from James Patterson's long-running series, and both were rock-solid hits. In 1997, Morgan Freeman starred with Ashley Judd in Kiss the Girls. The film wasn't as groundbreaking as Seven, and it wasn't as quirky as Copycat, but it was a well-staged, intelligent, and entertaining piece of sleazy pulp fiction. The picture cost around $30 million, opened with $13.5 million, and grossed $60 million in the US. Four years later, Paramount spent $60 million on an adaptation of Along Came A Spider, which was actually the first book to feature Alex Cross. It too was filled with solid character actors (Michael Moriarty, Dylan Baker, Monica Potter), and contained a terrific turn by Michael Wincott as the criminal mastermind Gary Soneji. In the books, Soneji was basically Professor Moriarty to Cross's Sherlock Holmes, with both achieving arch-villain status despite only two appearances in their respective series. It wasn't the smartest picture on the block, but it was great fun and the very definition of a satisfying Saturday night at the movies. Despite opening against the second weekend of Spy Kids, the second Alex Cross film opened with $16.7 million and closed with $74 million in domestic grosses and $105 million worldwide. And then, without fanfare, the series ended.
It's been over nine years since the last time Morgan Freeman donned the trench-coat. In that time Paramount has become the most reliable opener for massive-budgeted tentpole fantasy pictures. Transformers, Iron Man, Star Trek, The Last Airbender... if Paramount has the money to spend, they can open pretty much anything. But long gone are the Double Jeopardy, Kiss the Girls, and The Hunted type thrillers that were once their bread and butter. As the new film is privately financed, it remains to be seen whether or not Paramount will distribute this reboot of a series that served them awfully well. As it is, this is a series with massive long-term potential. The sixteen books, at least according to those who've read them (my wife and a few of our respective friends) are pretty much a kind of Thomas Harris/Bill Finger hybrid of sorts, with superhero profiler Alex Cross taking on such dynamically named serial killers, sexual deviants, and criminal masterminds like The Wolf, The Weasel, and The Mastermind.
Oddly enough, the new film will be based on Cross, which is one of the most recent books in the ongoing series and involves a retired Alex Cross tracking down that person who murdered his wife years earlier. Fair enough, but starting a series with a such a story is a lot like using The Killing Joke as your introductory Batman/Joker film. None the less, this is exciting news for fans of the series, or just fans of old-fashioned genre films. Idris Elba has been building a solid resume and a moderate fan-base for several years now, so this big break is certainly deserved (we all love Freeman, but the character was apparently written closer to Elba's age). As for the film itself, I can't imagine that Cross will be anything approaching art, but I also can't imagine it'll be anything less than a high-toned trashy good time. The film will begin production sometime in Spring 2011, and it will hopefully acquire distribution and release sometime in early 2012. How does this news all play out for those who've followed this series in print form? My wife can't wait.