[Screen It]

(2001) (Morgan Freeman, Monica Potter) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: A D.C. detective and a Secret Service agent join forces to find a young hostage and her kidnapper who's playing mind games with them.
Eight months after seeing his partner die during a botched undercover operation, D.C. detective Alex Cross (MORGAN FREEMAN) still hasn't forgiven himself for the incident or really gotten on with his life. His somber retreat, however, is broken when he suddenly finds himself thrust into the middle of a high-profile kidnapping case.

An apparent schoolteacher, Gary Soneji (MICHAEL WINCOTT), has kidnapped Megan Rose (MIKA BOOREM), the 12-year-old daughter of Senator (MICHAEL MORIARTY) and Mrs. Rose (PENELOPE ANN MILLER), despite her being under Secret Service protection run by agents Jezzie Flannigan (MONICA POTTER) and Ben Devine (BILLY BURKE), and has decided to get Cross involved in the case.

Arriving on the scene and meeting the head government agent in charge, Ollie McArthur (DYLAN BAKER), Cross gets to work investigating the case, asking that Jezzie be allowed on it due to her close involvement for several years with both Megan and Soneji. While the FBI believes that the kidnapper is just after money, Cross believes otherwise, particularly when he discovers that Soneji appears to be fixated on the historic kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby from the 1930s

As they realize that they're dealing with a deranged individual who's taken a long time to set up the crime and is now intent on playing mind games with them, Alex and Jezzie try to decipher his clues that they hope will eventually lead to him and the kidnapped girl.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
In today's world, it must be tough for cities and counties to fill all of their police department positions. That's not only due to few kids wanting to be cops nowadays - unlike in the past - but also because those who do most likely only want to apply for the openings in detective work.

Who could blame them? After all, the myriad of TV shows and movies make detectives look cool, with the latter group adding that bring screen luster and accompanying fringe benefits. Were else in the police department are those portrayed by attractive role models who always have at least one beautiful woman in their lives and get to play a game of mental chess with a deranged psychopath who can't just commit a crime, but must also leave enough taunting clues that will obviously lead to solving the crime and saving the day?

We've seen that scenario so many times before that there must be a "How To Write Detective Thrillers" manual at the Writers Guild of America library. If so, screenwriter Marc Moss seems to have been the latest scribe to have checked it out for his adaptation of James Patterson's novel, "Along Came A Spider."

To be fair, the novice screenwriter hasn't acted alone in his crime of repetitiveness as much of his plot follows Patterson's original story and director Lee Tamahori ("The Edge," "Mulholland Falls") doesn't stray far from the formula in shooting Moss' script.

This prequel to Patterson's "Kiss the Girls" - which was a moderate box office success back in 1997 but really has little to do sequentially with this effort - features and benefits from the presence and performance of Morgan Freeman who reprises his portrayal of D.C. detective Alex Cross. Playing one of those cinematic creations who could find a clue in an empty, windowless and sterilized room, Freeman ("Nurse Betty," "The Shawshank Redemption") brings far more gravity and dignity to this otherwise pedestrian thriller than it really deserves.

While anyone who's never seen such a story - where the psychopath plays mind games with his hunter and leaves a bread trail of clues that inevitably will lead to his capture and/or death - might find this film as exciting and imaginative, those of us who've seen more than a few of them won't find it particularly original or terribly interesting.

Beyond its treading over rather familiar grounds, much of the lackluster response to the film stems from the various preposterous and/or ludicrous discoveries and developments that pepper the plot. To begin with, there's the obvious fact that if the perp spent half the time watching and learning from previous cat and mouse thrillers as he does in setting up all of the "clever" and hidden clues, he could obviously avoid being captured. Of course, this film gets away with that by positioning the psychopath as seeking fame and a place in the history books rather than a ransom, but the point is still valid.

Thus, the detective finds the various hidden clues - that involve some farfetched moments such as a live video feed on a computer monitor being of such quality that one can zoom in to a minute, far-off detail - that's been strategically placed to be discovered through some diligence -- and see it in perfect clarity. Then there's the easily guessed password (that's visible when typed in rather than being replaced by the standard asterisks) that leads to an outrageous blueprint of the master crime that might as well have included a map stating, "The suspect is here by this point in the plot."

The biggest disappointment, among the many the film has to offer, is the obligatory role reversal where a character abruptly switches their behavior from bad to good, or vice-versa, in a desperate filmmaking attempt to goose the viewer. Although this sort of development may shock and/or catch some off guard, again anyone who's seen such a film will know it's coming. While such a twist could have worked if handled just right (as was the case in the terrific film, "Memento") it feels nothing but contrived here and comes off as the filmmakers obligingly fulfilling the last requirements of the "How To" manual.

Such criticisms may appear petty and far too nit-picking for some viewers who would lead you to believe that one should just sit back, not think about the film and simply enjoy it for what it offers. While there's a little validity to that in that Freeman makes the picture relatively easy to watch and director Tamahori does manage to stage some effective sequences, a film like this does require a mental alertness (after all, we're trying to solve the crime right along with the detective). In addition, such illogical and/or preposterous plot elements and developments not only thus stand out like sore thumbs, but they also distract the viewer and make the filmmakers appear as if they took the backed into a corner, only way out approach at telling their story.

Beyond Freeman, who could make a film where he just reads the want ads seem classy, most of the rest of the performances come off as bland and mediocre. "Replacing" Ashley Judd as the female sidekick role, Monica Potter ("Head Over Heels," "Patch Adams") is okay, and while some of her behavior is eventually explained, her performance feels more fabricated than natural. As the killer kidnapper, Michael Wincott ("Before Night Falls," "Alien: Resurrection") creates a character that's just as bad (from a villainous standpoint) and forgettable as any number of other two-dimensional psychopaths.

While the character played by Dylan Baker ("Thirteen Days," "The Cell") isn't much more than the obligatory government agent on the case/space filler, Mika Boorem ("The Patriot," "Mighty Joe Young") actually creates some interest in her kidnapping victim character that's more than the typical cowering lass. Elements involving her parents played by Michael Moriarty ("Courage Under Fire," TV's "Law & Order") and Penelope Ann Miller ("Kindergarten Cop," "Awakenings"), however, aren't as developed as one would like and assumes was done in the source novel.

Following the cat and mouse/detective versus psychopath playbook too closely and featuring too many preposterous/ludicrous plot elements and developments, the film is relatively easy to watch thanks to Freeman's presence and rock steady performance, but otherwise comes off as just more of the same old Hollywood hooey. "Along Came A Spider" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed April 4, 2001 / Posted April 6, 2001

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