Friday April 6, 2001
There are both mysteries and surprises in "Along Came a Spider," a reasonably diverting albeit frequently improbable thriller, but the biggest mystery of all is hardly a surprise: How does star Morgan Freeman manage to give a master class in acting every time he appears on screen?
Reprising a role he originated in 1997's "Kiss the Girls," Freeman plays Alex Cross, a Washington D.C., police detective and expert in psychological profiling who is sort of the Dalai Lama of criminal investigators the source of all knowledge who even other law enforcement types learn from. And he's that way as an actor, too.
Though Alex Cross is not the kind of a role or "Spider" the type of film that gets critical awards or Oscar nominations (Freeman already has three), its very standard-issue qualities make the nature of the actor's work stand out even more.
What Freeman has is the gift of reality. He seems to do very little on screen--it's impossible to catch him "acting"--yet he imbues the detective with dignity, grace and presence. Not all actors can make puzzled looks involving or turn "I honestly don't know" into an intriguing line of dialogue, but Freeman manages it easily.
Freeman also gives "Spider" the kind of ballast it would be lost without as the film's coincidences and implausibilities periodically threaten to spin it out of control. While Marc Moss' screenplay does keep us guessing, some of its surprises turn out to be hollow, a "fooled you" kind of trickiness that mitigates against our fuller involvement in the proceedings.
Also keeping us somewhat in the game is Lee Tamahori's direction. Tamahori followed his New Zealand debut, "Once Were Warriors," with thrillers "Mulholland Falls" and "The Edge" and some episodes of "The Sopranos," and, aided by cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti and top editor Neil Travis, he is not shy about moving the convoluted plot along.
Based on the first novel in James Patterson's Alex Cross series ("Kiss the Girls," co-starring Ashley Judd, was based on the second), "Spider" doles out its information sparingly, like money from the tooth fairy. The only thing that is immediately clear is that there's hardly any person or any situation you can depend on to be exactly what they seem.
"Spider's" improbabilities start early on, with the introduction of a fictitious Washington school so elite that its children, offspring of senators, Congress members and international dignitaries, are all protected by a Secret Service detail (they don't do that kind of work).
Despite this security entourage, young Megan Rose, the daughter (nicely played by Mika Boorem, daughter in Mel Gibson's "The Patriot" character) of a senator is kidnapped. This especially embarrasses Jezzie Flannigan, one of the federal agents in charge, played by Monica Potter, whose co-starring role in "Patch Adams" probably taught her all she needed to know about embarrassment.
Alex Cross, meanwhile, is in semi-retirement after a police operation gone bad, investing so much care in model shipbuilding that his wife cracks, "How many of these boats do you have to make until you're shipshape?"
If there is one person unhappier than Mrs. Cross about Alex's lassitude it's Megan Rose's kidnapper, Gary Soneji. Played by Michael Wincott, an actor blessed with a naturally twisted look, Soneji is a Professor Moriarty-type criminal, someone who enjoys a challenging cerebral battle with the best even more than composing a stiff ransom note.
Soneji places a key piece of evidence in Cross' mailbox, all but forcing him to get involved with the case. "He's like a spider," Cross says, conveniently giving the film its title, "and I happen to like spiders." Naturally, Cross wants to work alone, but Agent Flannigan is so down in the dumps and determined to atone for her mistakes that she ends up convincing the great man to let her help detect.
All this is the merest beginning to a story that tries its hardest to outsmart us. Yet while its specifics are tricky, in general outline and rhythm "Along Came a Spider" is fairly standard. Still, with Morgan Freeman as your star, even standard fare can pass the time competently enough.
Along Came A Spider, 2001. R, for violence and language. A David Brown/Phase I production, in association with Revelations Entertainment, released by Paramount. Director Lee Tamahori Producers David Brown, Joe Wizan. Executive producers Morgan Freeman, Marty Hornstein. Screenplay Marc Moss, based on the novel by James Patterson. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. Editor Neil Travis. Costumes Snja Milkovic Hays. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Ida Random. Art director Sandy Cochrane. Set decorator Elizabeth Wilcox. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. Morgan Freeman as Alex Cross. Monica Potter as Jessie Flannigan. Michael Wincott as Gary Soneji. Penelope Ann Miller as Elizabeth Rose. Michael Moriarty as Sen. Hank Rose. Mika Boorem as Megan Rose.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times