From the opening teaser sequence to the casting of Morgan Freeman as a detective tracking a criminal mastermind to the gratuitous twists at the end, Along Came a Spider spins its formulaic web like a black widow on automatic pilot. A moribund pall hangs over the whole painfully generic enterprise; watching Spider is like experiencing a prolonged case of deja vu made up entirely of Mannix reruns.
Freeman reprises his role as Washington DC detective/psychologist Alex Cross, first seen in 1997’s Kiss the Girls. But he’s also essentially rehashing his Se7en persona – the impassive, coolly logical profiler with no personal life to speak of. This time around, Cross is drawn into a kidnapping investigation. Megan Rose, the daughter of a United States senator, is whisked away from the exclusive Cathedral School right under the noses of her Secret Service detail. The culprit is Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott), a master of disguise and gadgetry and all things villainous. Because he’s such a brilliant scoundrel, he needs an equally gifted nemesis to taunt with clues, to ensure that the full range of his genius is appreciated. So he calls Cross, using an electronic voice scrambler, and lures him into the investigation. Already on the case is Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), Megan’s assigned Secret Service protector, who is under fire from her superiors for her failure to prevent the kidnapping.
Cross and Flannigan team up to track down Soneji and the world’s dullest crimefighting duo is born. They soon discover that Soneji intends to use Megan Rose as bait, in order to capture an even more prominent student at the Cathedral School. Obsessed with the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and eager to top it, Soneji is more concerned with his place in history books than financial gain. Cross and Flannigan are able to thwart a second kidnapping attempt, setting in motion a series of twists ranging from the implausible to the outright insulting. Post-production scuttlebutt has it that Spider‘s conclusion was radically altered after the original shoot, as those who have read James Patterson’s book can attest. Apparently, the new "shocking" ending was months in the making; if so, that fact is more disturbing than anything on the screen. Viewers are left to amuse themselves by spotting the antecedent’s of Spider’s big set pieces – this one from Cliffhanger, that one from Die Hard With a Vengeance.
Spider is directed by Lee Tamahori, the New Zealander who came to prominence with his edgy debut feature, Once Were Warriors. Since then he’s made a pair of unremarkable American features, Mulholland Falls and The Edge, but his best work to date consists of a handful of Sopranos episodes he’s directed. Those shows prove Tamahori can deliver the goods when he’s given strong material to work with, but this threadbare thriller would stymie even the most gifted filmmaker. Still, Tamahori’s sluggish pacing and uninspired visuals don’t bring much to the party. Nor do the actors. Wincott (Dead Man, The Crow) has been a creepy screen presence in the past, but here he’s reduced to little more than a deep, gravelly voice. When he and the similarly sonorous Freeman share a scene, it’s like a meeting of the Barry White fan club. Potter was obviously concocted in an underground lab at Paramount studios from some contraband Julia Roberts DNA, though the experiment was not a complete success. This clone is entirely personality-free, with each line reading more wooden than the last. As always, Freeman gets through with his dignity intact, but he’s done dignity to death by now. Word has it that more Alex Cross vehicles are already in the works, but Freeman would do well to avoid them. As would we all.