Morgan Freeman, Monica Potter

"Along Came a Spider" weaves a humdrum plot that's never ahead of the audience until three-quarters through and even then will hardly surprise the readers of James Patterson's first bestselling novel featuring uber-profiler Alex Cross. A prequel to "Kiss the Girls" -- the first Cross thriller adapted for the screen, also starring Morgan Freeman -- new pic thankfully steers clear of its predecessor's glumly lurid obsessions while remaining focused on the abduction of a young female innocent.

Rather than a web of intrigue, “Along Came a Spider” weaves a humdrum plot that’s never ahead of the audience until three-quarters through and even then will hardly surprise the readers of James Patterson’s first bestselling novel featuring uber-profiler Alex Cross. A prequel to “Kiss the Girls” — the first Cross thriller adapted for the screen, also starring Morgan Freeman — new pic thankfully steers clear of its predecessor’s glumly lurid obsessions while remaining focused on the abduction of a young female innocent. Yet the very characteristics that have made Cross so appealing, particularly his mind-tickling abilities to assess and outmaneuver his criminal opponents, are reduced here to the most fundamental and predictable level. First-week curiosity will quickly fade, leading to an unexciting theatrical return for a Paramount release that will have to recoup in a big way in ancillaries.

While Patterson’s fans will have to refrain from revealing the story’s key twist, they may not recognize other elements that screenwriter Marc Moss changed in his adaptation. Script pares away considerable action and complications while altering the identities of the victims and the spellings of character names.

A new ending was reshot late into production, but may not have been a vast improvement on any previous variations of “Spider.” The conclusion is all of a piece with the rather plodding whole, helmed by Kiwi director Lee Tamahori, whose third Hollywood feature continues a string of disappointments after his first work, the bracing “Once Were Warriors.”

Though the opening moments shrewdly avoid the temptation to reintroduce Freeman’s familiar Cross, they are nevertheless as generic as can be. This thinking detective puts his partner in a dangerous situation with a serial killer, and like Sylvester Stallone’s character in “Cliffhanger,” watches her tumble to an awful, precipitous death. Months later, the self-doubting Cross burrows inside himself by building model ships, but a kidnapping is brewing to bring him back into the hunt.

At a tony D.C. private school, a teacher named Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott), whose bad, W.C. Fields-like makeup disguise alone should make him extremely suspicious to authorities, teaches a class on Charles Lindbergh and has his eye on two prized pupils, Megan Rose (Mika Boorem), daughter of Sen. Hank Rose (Michael Moriarty), and Dimitri Starodubov (Anton Yelchin), son of the Russian ambassador to the U.S.

Soneji gets Megan alone in his office and quickly subdues her and drives her to his waiting yacht. Chided for letting the kidnapping happen on her watch, Secret Service agent Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter) seems to be in the permanent doghouse with top cop Ollie McArthur (Dylan Baker).

But Cross, drawn into the case by some evidence and a phone call care of Soneji, insists that Jezzie be part of the investigative team, setting up a frustratingly uninteresting relationship between them. Their supposed links — a passion for rescuing Megan, a gnawing sense of professional failure — feel more like genre requirements than authentic elements of their characters.

As for Soneji, it hardly gooses our sense of terror that he’s such a blank bad guy: He’s smart and — Cross notes admiringly at one point — as determined and methodical as a spider, and he’ll kill anyone who gets in his way. But he has no real eccentricities or oddities to make him an interesting nemesis.

The kidnapper’s unremarkable motive is to bring media attention to himself, which makes Soneji no more compelling than a contestant on “Survivor.”

A thoroughly odd and unconvincing meeting between Cross and Soneji leads to the kidnapper’s awkwardly realized death scene.

The twists that follow have enough of an impact to force auds to reconsider everything they’ve heard and seen to this point — a double-edged sword, as it also leads to consideration of the gaping holes in the plot turn itself.

As reliable as any actor in Hollywood, Freeman delivers the requisite gravitas, but the bland script curtails any personal touches he might have inserted were his sleuth character unraveling a truly vexing mystery.

His co-stars notably lack fire, from Wincott to the usually quietly dynamic Baker, who must settle for cut-rate dialogue and brief scenes. Potter finally has some juicy opportunities late into the game, but it is much too little, too late.

Pic’s visuals, especially Matthew F. Leonetti’s anamorphic lensing, have a fine sheen, and though Jerry Goldsmith’s score is not one of his more inspired, it’s accented by an itchy nervousness of which the movie could have used more.

Along Came a Spider

Production

A Paramount Pictures release of a David Brown/Phase I production in association with Revelations Entertainment. Produced by David Brown, Joe Wizan. Executive producers, Morgan Freeman, Marty Hornstein. Directed by Lee Tamahori. Screenplay, Marc Moss, based on the novel by James Patterson.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Matthew F. Leonetti; editor, Neil Travis; music, Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Ida Random; art director, Sandy Cochrane; set decorator, Elizabeth Wilcox; costume designer, Sanja Milkovic Hays; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Eric J. Batut; supervising sound editor, Stephen Hunter Flick; visual effects supervisor, Bill Westenhofer; chief makeup artist, Rosalina Da Silva; assistant director, Jim Brebner; casting, Denise Chamian. Reviewed at the Regent Theatre, L.A., March 23, 2001. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Alex Cross - Morgan Freeman Jezzie Flannigan - Monica Potter Gary Soneji - Michael Wincott Ollie McArthur - Dylan Baker Megan Rose - Mika Boorem Dimitri Starodubov - Anton Yelchin Agent Hickley - Kim Hawthorne Kyle Craig - Jay O. Sanders Ben Devine - Billy Burke Senator Hank Rose - Michael Moriarty Elizabeth Rose - Penelope Ann Miller
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