Along Came a Spider

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/28/06 12:20:42

"Rent it for the prologue, then turn it off."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Great filmmaking is sometimes found in the unlikeliest places. I would like to refer you to the first five minutes of the otherwise dull-as-dishwater "Along Came a Spider," five minutes that play like a brilliant short film. True, this prelude (which has little to do with the rest of the film) derives from a time-tested cliché -- a cop's traumatic loss of his partner, setting him up to be hesitantly pulled back into action later -- but we have to recognize skill where we find it.

The cop in question is forensic psychologist Dr. Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman), who's trying to nab a serial killer; his partner (Jill Teed, who makes the most of her few minutes) is a decoy in Cross's sting operation, riding in a car with the suspect. The plan goes spectacularly bad, and director Lee Tamahori stages everything -- the dread that develops when the partner's cover is blown; the resulting unplanned bit of violence leading to a cataclsymic accident -- with a sadist's eye for detail. I am something of a connoisseur of scenes featuring characters who realize they're about to die -- it's a test of any actor (will they overplay it? underplay?) -- and Jill Teed does it as well as I've seen it done. The set-up, the violent climax, the bleak ending -- this prelude is almost a terrific noir film in miniature.

I've gone on so long about the opening of Along Came a Spider because the remainder of the film offers little to talk about. Even if I were inclined to deal with the plot at length, this is one of those thrillers -- the kind that you can't review without contorting yourself into pretzels to avoid spoiling the "surprises." After eight months of mourning his partner, Cross is drawn back into the game when a remote evil genius (Michael Wincott) kidnaps a senator's little daughter. Joining Cross on the case is Secret Service Agent Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), who had been assigned to protect the girl and now feels bad about it. Many cat-and-mouse games follow, accompanied by many scenes of the usually fun-to-watch Michael Wincott growling into a phone being all diabolical and ingenious. Is there some school where movie evil geniuses learn all their neat tricks?

Name three other movie series wherein a 63-year-old African-American gets to play a recurring hero. There are no others; Morgan Freeman has the only one -- Alex Cross previously headlined 1997's Kiss the Girls, based, like the present film, on a novel by James Patterson. I don't begrudge Freeman his own hero-man franchise -- hey, bring on the Alex Cross action figure if you want to -- but I do wish the movies worked harder to be worthy of their central star. Freeman, a co-producer on Along Came a Spider, looks mildly bored in it; he scarcely smiles (hell, even the grim-as-a-rainy-funeral Seven gave him a fine hearty laughing scene). Maybe he's as uninspired by his co-star Monica Potter, with whom he trades most of his lines, as I was; Potter, very obviously being groomed as Julia Roberts Jr., is almost perfectly bland until her final scenes, when she tries too late to be interesting.

Remember a paragraph ago, when I said "Many cat-and-mouse games follow"? There's your review; that's Along Came a Spider in a nutshell. My code of honor as a reviewer prevents me from spoiling the plot twists that aren't worth preserving in the first place (and the plot, upon later deconstruction, makes no sense whatsoever). Oh, well. At least we have those first five minutes -- encouraging evidence that the director, Lee Tamahori, isn't completely dead yet. Tamahori had, with 1994's Once Were Warriors, one of the strongest and most original debuts in recent memory; his films thereafter (Mulholland Falls, The Edge, and the final 99 minutes of this film) have eluded recent memory.

Tamahori's handling of violence, though, is as vital and painful as ever. What he needs, like all directors, is a script that actually means something.

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