Along Came a Spider
Screenplay : Marc Moss (based on the novel by James Patterson)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Morgan Freeman (Dr. Alex Cross), Monica Potter (Secret Service Agent Jezzie Flannigan), Michael Wincott (Gary Soneji / Jonathan Mercuzio), Dylan Baker (Special Agent Oliver McArthur), Mika Boorem (Megan Rose), Michael Moriarty (Senator Hank Rose), Penelope Ann Miller (Elizabeth Rose), Anton Yelchin (Dimitri Starodubov)
In Along Came a Spider, Morgan Freeman reprises his role as Washington, DC forensic psychologist and police detective Dr. Alex Cross, the hero of five mystery novels by James Patterson. Freeman also played the role in 1997's Kiss the Girls, although Spider is based on the novel that introduced Cross's character. It is interesting and a bit disappointing in that respect that more is not done with Cross's character development in the movie; rather, director Lee Tamahori (The Edge) and first-time screenwriter Marc Moss rely largely on a twisty plot and Freeman's well-established solemn, wise persona to carry the movie.
Take, for instance, the opening sequence in which Cross is involved in a sting operation to catch a murderer. His female partner ends up dying as a result, and Cross has to look her in the eyes as she plunges to her death. Fast-forward eight months, and Cross has apparently semi-retired because of the incident, until he is called back into action (literally) by a devious kidnapper who wants to be famous. And, just like that, Cross is right back in the game. There are a few mentions of his partner later in the film, but it is almost completely inconsequential.
One could excise the whole opening sequence and it would have almost no impact on the rest of the movie, which is a shame because it could have been used to great effect to deepen Cross's character. As is, he is a stoic, intelligent, confident sleuth who shows little or no emotional involvement in what he's doing. Having played this role before (as well as a similar one in 1995's Seven, although there his character traits were more deeply imbedded in the film's thematic material), Freeman could play Cross in his sleep, which is what he seems to have done (which is not to say that Freeman's performance isn't good, just not outstanding).
The main plot involves Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott), an ambitious kidnapper who poses as a teacher at an exclusive private school for two years so he can snatch Megan Rose (Mika Boorem), the daughter of a senator. Soneji is a technically savvy master criminal adept at disguise, and his ambitions are nothing less than pulling off "The Crime of the Century" (his model is the kidnapping of the Lindbergh Baby).The Secret Service agent assigned to protect Megan, Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), is wracked by guilt at her failure to do her job, and she immediately partners up with Cross to get her back. I suppose there is an intended connection between Cross and Jezzie in that they are both carrying the guilt of failure with them into this new investigation, but it doesn't really come out in the story.
Along Came a Spider is certainly competent as a suspense thriller, but it never achieves any level beyond that. The plot is appropriately clever, with several didn't-see-'em-coming plot twists. The action sequences are energetic and well done, especially an extended ransom drop that has Cross running all over downtown Washington, DC, picking up ringing pay phones and digging cell phones out of trashcans in order to get further instructions.
Yet, in the end, it all feels utterly routine. Entertaining, but forgettable. The movie's inability to dig deeper into Cross's character even though this is his second appearance on-screen is evidence that there is little of particular interest about him as a character; there doesn't seem to be anything else we can know about him that would make him more interesting, which is a shame because Freeman has shown in the past an ability to play complex and challenging characters with whom we can still identify (see his portrayal of a hitman in Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty). Thus, we are left with a potentially interesting character who is overshadowed by a kidnapping plot that, while certainly clever (although, in retrospect, utterly implausible), is not enough to elevate the movie out of the haze of similar products.
©2001 James Kendrick