Along Came a Spider (2001)

D: Lee Tamahori
S: Morgan Freeman, Monica Potter

Watchable thriller from the novel by James Patterson continuing the adventures of his psychologist/profiler Alex Cross first seen on film with Kiss the Girls. This time Cross (again Morgan Freeman) is faces a devious kidnapper with a grudge against him and a desire to make history. The detective is aided by disgraced secret service agent Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), whose failure to protect her client leads to the initial narrative crisis. After an arguably unnecessary Cliffhanger-type opening, Lee Tamahori's movie settles into a reasonable pace and spins a good yarn (so to speak). Though not as offbeat as Kiss the Girls, the story has a lot of interesting elements and enough variance from the usual mad serial killer nonsense (The Bone Collector, The Watcher) to make it worthwhile. It does become fairly convoluted and it is actually quite predictable in spite of this, but Freeman is rock solid in the lead, Michael Wincott (The Crow) is a very effective villain and the film works more or less as well as might be expected given a good budget, a good cast, and a director with enough time to make it.

There is some attempt to push the material a little deeper, but it's all in the background. Set in Washington DC, the film makes use of familiar locations and an initial setting in the world of the sons and daughters of men and women of power to snipe away at the biases and privileges of the high and mighty. It is too soft on all of its characters to really make this anything more than a sub-text though, as there is essentially no one to boo and hiss at other than the obvious kidnapper himself. This pushes the film back towards drama, of course, and on this level it does work. Unlike for example the overblown kidnap movie Ransom, Along Came a Spider plays down its sensational elements. It favours the procedural aspects of Cross' investigation, which though infected with the usual 'Eureka' factor of brilliant discoveries by the leading man at regular intervals just when it looked like he was stumped are largely delivered with sincerity. Freeman has such a strong grip on this kind of determined, middleaged everyman character by now that he can easily take the audience along for the ride. The film itself is otherwise sincere in general, with no real attempt at smarmy black humour or winks to the audience. It draws you in to a (relatively) realistic depiction of a tense situation in which people behave less like action heroes and more like human beings.

Another interesting aspect is in its treatment of its villain. It has become de rigeur in serial killer thrillers to make the psycho kind of likable on some level, a hangover from the classic monster movie which hasn't really been all that good an idea on many levels. It is also quite commonplace to blur the lines of identification between the pursuer and pursued, seen at its most explicit most recently in The Watcher. In Along Came a Spider, there is a preexisting relationship between cross and his quarry (and there's more to that observation than meets the eye, as you'll see) which allows the kidnapper to second guess the profiler and play him against himself at least part of the way. Patterson's penchant for psychological detail only comes across in faint suggestions, but it is there, and there are some believable plot developments which rely on common understandings and misunderstandings of criminal psychology. The film creates subtle sympathy for Wincott's character not because he's hip and smart and can drop off one-liners, but because thanks to Wincott's beautifully controlled performance, one senses his damaged desperation. His fascination with Cross stems not from admiration among equals, but from a lost soul searching for something solid to hold onto. This also contributes to the sense of authenticity (within the bounds of narrative cinema, naturally), and again makes it more subtle and less generic than it first appears.

Again though this kind of detail is deep in the movie and some viewers may not be interested in looking for it. On the surface Along Came a Spider is a more or less middle of the road cop drama likely to appeal to genre fans. It could strike casual viewers the right way if they're in the mood for it, but it doesn't have anything special in it to recommend for them. Those with enough interest or patience will, as noted, find in it aspects to admire and enjoy above and beyond the basics, and though it's still no masterpiece, it's a lot better than some of the initial reactions to it might suggest.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.