. "Along Came a Spider"

From the annals (and the pen) of best-selling mystery writer, James Paterson, comes this suspense thriller featuring his ace profiler cop, Alex Cross.

Cross (Morgan Freeman), in a prologue chase scene sting operation loses his partner when the car she's in is driven off the road by a serial killer perp and down a dam embankment. This all but destroys the detective but he maintains through concentrating on his hobby of building miniature boats. The self-therapy is cut short when he's chosen by a kidnapper to lead the investigation of his capture of Megan Rose, (Mika Boorem) the daughter of Senator Hank Rose (Michael Moriarty) from her classroom in a posh Washington private school protected by a platoon of Secret Service agents and their electronics.

Embarrassing, indeed, for the agent in charge, Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter) who is held very accountable. But the durable Cross sees potential in her, holding that her knowledge of the circumstances will provide valuable clues to chase down. She agrees to help as a "partner" to Cross and we set off on a kidnap scenario with another intrepid duo.

All is not well in the story line, however, as we learn that the kidnapper, Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott), is a psychotic crazy who has been performing as a teacher (in a heavy prosthetic disguise to mask his real identity) for two years, plotting his move on one of his students with a powerful parent. His purpose is not the attainment of money but the acknowledgement of his skills as a super-kidnapper. He wants his mastery known publically and for that he needs to have it recognized, if not appreciated, by no less than the master criminal chaser himself, Alex Cross. Cross soon has the fiend's peculiarity figured out but is led a merry chase by Soneji's tricks and taunts which are off the charts for implausibility.

Despite the title, it's his cat and mouse games that take up a good part of the storyline ("spider" seemed a less hackneyed metaphor for a kidnapper?) until a demand for 60 million in diamonds becomes the stock in trade for the wily little 11-year old victim. Suddenly it's a whole new ballgame, which Cross immediately realizes, and it plays like a writer's reach for a twist to the expected story development or a clash between different story drafts.

Where Paterson's story and Marc Moss's screenplay diverges can be ascertained with a read of the source material. Beyond placing blame or credit, though, the film works off the absolutely dependable depth and natural humanity of actor Freeman. As they say, every film he's in is a workshop for other actors. If he weren't prone to take on secondary material, he'd be dominating the Academy Awards.

Monica Potter is a refreshing face in the criminal investigation context (a quite beautiful one) which we last saw, notably, in "Con Air" as Nicholas Cage's wife. The chemistry between her and Freeman works nicely to a certain point. Michael Wincott is a character actor with an adequately believable psychotic face to have been cast as the twisted mastermind. He pulls it off well.

Though I was essentially entertained by the action-filled drama it causes me some pity for the plight of the poor mystery writer. You can't, after all, do the same thing over and over again, so the challenge is to provide a new profile on the criminal mind. So often this is an invitation to abandon logic and the realities of human behavior. But, so long as you have a presence like Freeman to somehow anchor you in something recognizable, your fix of mystery and action can be provided.

Estimated cost: $28,000,000. Projected U.S. Boxoffice: $75,000,000.

Rated M, for Morgan.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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