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'Spider' Spins in Surprising Directions

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2001


    'Along Came a Spider' Morgan Freeman stars in "Along Came a Spider." (Bruce Talamon/Paramount)
Only in the world of crime and punishment that exists on celluloid and the printed page do detectives have what are known as "nemeses." (Think Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty.) If not for the criminal mastermind – that brilliant, knuckle-stroking psychopath who can't resist tormenting his pursuers with clues (not the accidental but the ingeniously deliberate variety) – the business of detective fiction would dry up faster than a dot-com.

Out of the sturdy but well-worn mold of "Seven," "The Bone Collector" and myriad other contemporary films policiers comes "Along Came a Spider," a taut, satisfying sequel of sorts to the 1997 hit "Kiss the Girls." (Technically, "Spider" is a prequel, since it's based on the first book in James Patterson's series about D.C. police department forensic-psychologist-extraordinaire Alex Cross; "Kiss" was the second title in the series.) Once again, gimlet-eyed Morgan Freeman fills Cross's gumshoes with distinction.

As in the earlier film, the cerebral sleuth matches wits here with an equally cerebral bad guy. Like the titular arachnid, villain Gary Soneji (the raspy-voiced Michael Wincott) invites the policeman and best-selling author of books on criminal profiling into his web – by planting evidence in Cross's mailbox, no less! – not because he wants to get caught but because he wants to be, as Cross surmises, "appreciated." To that end, Soneji kidnaps the 9-year-old daughter (Mika Boorem) of a U.S. senator (Michael Moriarty), hoping, it would appear, to be memorialized as the perpetrator of the new crime of the century.

So far, so good . . . and so familiar.

What enriches "Spider," however, is the thematic undercurrent of redemption that runs throughout it. Not only is Cross on some level trying to atone for an earlier police sting in which he was indirectly responsible for his partner's death (shown in a brief, hair-raising prologue), but in this current case he has decided to partner with – or mentor really – another damaged psyche. Playing Secret Service Agent Jezzie Flannigan, a disgraced officer whose inattention to duty led to her young charge's abduction, Monica Potter fits the formula frequently seen in movies of this ilk: She's young and good-looking, somewhat rash and idealistic; he's older and wiser, a cynical father figure with just a hint of brooding sexuality.

Unlike "Kiss the Girls," though, which capitalized on the chemistry between Freeman and co-star Ashley Judd, the new film is less character driven. If Potter and Freeman don't exactly snap, crackle and pop, however, that's more than made up for by the unexpected torque of the script, which, as adapted by writer Marc Moss and directed by Lee "Once Were Warriors" Tamahori, contains several rip-snorting good plot twists. No, they're not "Sixth Sense" good, but they come in well-timed succession and, like the film's judicious but not sparing use of gunfire, they're needed to jolt the audience out of its complacency. After all, we think we know whodunit from the start.

Of course, I have to be allowed the usual local critic's quibbles with the Washington depicted on film. In a sequence unintentionally hilarious (at least to area audiences), Cross scurries around downtown D.C. on foot as he follows the kidnapper's instructions for dropping off a ransom. During one leg of the increasingly Byzantine relay race, as a barely winded Cross sprints from pay phone to pay phone, he's shown jogging from the Watergate hotel to Capitol Hill in 14 minutes flat – a crosstown trip that would be no mean feat for a man half his age.

But little matter.

Freeman's performance – one of laserlike perspicacity shining through eyes made narrow by a laconic, been-there-done-that cool – is the film's ramrod-true spine. As Cross, he enlivens "Spider's" tired conventions even as the film stretches the gossamer threads of its story line up to, but never beyond, the breaking point.

"Along Came a Spider" (R, 103 minutes) – Contains obscenity, a bit of sexually oriented dialogue, numerous shooting deaths and a child in jeopardy.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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