Along Came a Spider (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Here's one important rule about film criticism and review writing: the harder you have to think to find something noteworthy or laudable about a motion picture, the less likely it is to get a recommendation. So, although there are some things to praise about Lee Tamahori's overwrought adaptation of James Patterson's novel, Along Came a Spider, they aren't immediately obvious. This mystery/thriller manages to sink under the weight of its own preposterousness despite the best efforts of the always-effective Morgan Freeman to stave off disaster. Alas, not even Freeman's superior performance can save Along Came a Spider from that recurring motion picture infection: the insultingly idiotic screenplay.

When Lee Tamahori made his first bad motion picture, Mulholland Falls, I was genuinely surprised and disheartened. After all, his debut feature, Once Were Warriors, was a singularly powerful and memorable effort connecting guilt, machismo, and spousal abuse. Another sub-par movie, The Edge, followed Mulholland Falls, and, with Along Came a Spider, Tamahori has scored a hat-trick of mediocre dreck since coming to Hollywood. One of the most depressing things about this movie is that the director approaches the material with complete seriousness. A wink and a nod, or any evidence of playing some of the material for fun, might have made Along Came a Spider an enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, in its present form, it's just plain tedious.

Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman), the brilliant detective from Kiss the Girls, is back. (I am reliably informed that the events in Along Came a Spider precede those in Kiss the Girls, but the time line is not revealed in the movie, and I haven't read the book.) This time, he's paired with an attractive secret service agent, Jezzie Flannagan (Monica Potter), whose pre-teen charge was kidnapped during her watch. Jezzie's job was to protect Megan Rose (Mika Boorem), the daughter of a United States senator, but even her diligence couldn't prevent Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott), the "perfect teacher", from spiriting the girl away from school. Now it's up to Cross to determine why Megan was kidnapped and what Soneji wants before the kidnapping turns into a homicide.

Along Came a Spider doesn't begin badly. In fact, the prologue, which details how Cross loses a partner, is actually involving. Unfortunately, it's downhill from there. By the time the movie has twisted its way towards its "surprise" revelation, the plot has ceased to make any kind of sense. Characters make huge leaps of intuition for no reason other than that it is required by the storyline, and the unmasking of the true villain is about as anti-climactic and predictable as in any second-rate detective tale. There's a simple method to figuring out the bad guy's identity in stuff like this - just pick the least likely candidate. Not terribly inventive or interesting. If the twist takes you by surprise, it means one of three things: you weren't paying attention (highly possible), you were sleeping (also possible), or you're hopelessly gullible.

Along Came a Spider's saving grace is Freeman, who strides through the film with his dignity intact. Even mired in something like this, Freeman is watchable - and that's one reason he's among the best, most underrated actors working today. Monica Potter isn't bad, either, but she never quite gets beyond the "cute" label that is often applied to her. Frequent antagonist Michael Wincott, playing the obvious bad guy (not the "secret" one), gives a mail-it-in villain performance full of smirking and sneering. There's nothing remarkable, dangerous, or seemingly threatening about Soneji. He's just another motion picture multiple-murderer. And, compared to someone like Hannibal Lecter, he has a limited imagination (not to mention deficient culinary skills).

Several readers of James Patterson's book have assured me that the written version lacks many of the film's catastrophic plot holes, which is a good thing, because it's hard to imagine a publishing company mass-producing a novel that has been faithfully adapted into this screenplay. Much as I admire Freeman's performance, I can't bring myself to recommend Along Came a Spider. The cheap thrills aren't worth the self-inflicted lobotomy one must perform to enjoy them.

Along Came a Spider (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2001-04-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1