Along Came a Spider
Directed by Lee Tamahori
Written by Marc Moss
Starring Morgan Freeman, Monica Potter, Michael Wincott


Along Came a Spider

Morgan Freeman is one of that select group of actors who can command a screen just by looking thoughtful. Even that trademark slow blink of his eyes seems somehow to communicate power and ultimate vindication. Not only is that quality rare anywhere, in anyone, let's remember that Freeman is 63 years old, with a face that looks every day of it; though he appears to be in terrific physical shape, topped with a full head of hair that's going attractively grey at the temples.

More important, he wins by underplaying. No shouting, no frantic careening from ambush to shootout. Just that look, and a few well-chosen words at the right time.

The problem with "Along Came a Spider," though, is that the well-chosen words are few and far between. The script, by Marc Moss from the James Patterson novel, consists almost entirely of plot points. Someone spots an interesting fact about the crime; someone else responds by pointing out the corollary to it. Nobody has anything resembling a life or a personality or an ability to think about anything outside the immediate problem on the screen. (There is an embarrassing, though mercifully short, scene at the beginning when Freeman, as detective Alex Cross, is shown trying to put together a ship in a bottle until Vickie, his - wife? Lover? Roommate? We never find out - says "I have never seen a man work so hard at being busy," a line that actually doesn't parse but is intended to let us know that Alex is depressed because he lost his partner in a sting gone bad.)

The story itself strains credulity. A teacher - a very bad person indeed - at an exclusive Washington, D.C. prep school for children of political bigwigs, kidnaps the daughter of a U.S. Senator. Though the school seems to have more Secret Service agents hanging around than teachers, no one has apparently spotted that this teacher, Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott), isn't exactly what he seems. He isn't exactly what he looks like either, since for the two years he's taught there he's worn a latex mask over his real face.

In any case, Alex, a criminal profiler, is put on his trail, and is joined by Jezzie Flanagan (Monica Potter), a Secret Service agent who chased but lost the kidnapper as he was leaving the school with the child (Mika Boorem, who handles herself very well). In the course of the film there is a double cross followed by a triple cross, each of them meant to change our direction 180 degrees and shake up our understanding of what's going on, but somehow they miss having the impact we might expect.

The film was directed by Lee Tamahori, a New Zealand Maori whose film "Once Were Warriors," about an urban Maori family in Auckland trying to cope in a white world, is one of the great treasures of my life as a critic. Although we can still see here some of Tamahori's skill at composing fluid shots and moving his actors in interesting ways, and although his lighting (the director of photography is Matthew F. Leonetti) is skillful beyond the convention of dark and spooky places, he cannot save the film from its insistence on being all plot all the time.

The film is a sequel, of sorts, to the earlier Patterson novel and film "Kiss the Girls," which also featured Freeman as Alex Cross.