*½/**** Image A Sound A
starring Morgan Freeman, Monica Potter, Michael Wincott, Penelope Ann Miller
screenplay by Marc Moss, based on the novel by James Patterson
directed by Lee Tamahori
by Walter Chaw The sole line to strike with truth in Lee Tamahori's Along Came a Spider comes when professional dim-bulb Penelope Ann Miller, as the mother of a kidnapped child, wrings her hands, furrows her brow, and whines, "I... I don't understand." Springing as it no doubt does from a lifetime of repetition, Ms. Miller's quandary also serves as a handy critique of the labyrinthine contortions that the film's plot makes on its way to being utterly senseless and unengaging; its blandness takes on a cast of bellicosity. You begin to feel like the butt of some absurd joke or embroiled in a wilfully obscure Buddhist koan: What is the sound of one movie sucking?
Morgan Freeman reprises his role as ace forensic detective Alex Cross in this sequel of sorts to Kiss the Girls. Along Came a Spider opens with a murky set-piece climaxing with the death of Freeman's young woman partner (following an astonishingly bad bit of CGI work), and because most of us have seen ten kazillion variations on this device, we groan when a disgraced young female secret service agent named Jezzie (a dreadful Monica Potter) appears on the scene to act as Alex's shot at redemption. No extra points for guessing that Jezzie laments a cold relationship with an estranged father and therefore looks to Alex to fill a paternal role. (A beast I like to call "pater all too familiarus.")
The reason for Jezzie's fall is tied into her mishandling of a senator's daughter, who has been stolen by the evil Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott). Posing as a teacher at little Megan's (Mika Boorem) exclusive U.N. school in maybe the least convincing prosthetic makeup since Eddie Murphy pretended to be a white man on SNL, Soneji spirits the plucky little sprite away in the hopes that published author Alex Cross will make him famous. In what passes for clever in Dan Quayle's blighted world (recalling that our favourite vice president once mangled the Negro College Fund's slogan thus: "To lose one's mind is a terrible thing"), Soneji solemnly warns Alex that a mind is a terrible thing, period. A motto that screenwriter Marc Moss seems to have taken to heart.
It's one thing to have a curious plot development or two--it's another thing altogether to have a film that fixates on metronomically-spaced climaxes and expositions, ignoring even the barest responsibility to narrative and, by extension, its audience. Along Came a Spider is a contradiction in the way that it is at once a chaotic mishmash of rambling nonsense and completely predictable: It follows formula so strictly that it doesn't think to tie one portion of itself to the next--thriller plot soup. It's as if director Tamahori arranged a collection of body parts carefully on a table in a simulacrum of life in the quixotic hope that putting one thing next to the other would somehow imply cohesion.
Not helping matters is a performance by Potter that stands as one of the more peculiar non-Lorraine Bracco actress turns in recent memory. Potter is the epitome of the Stepford ingénue: she looks pretty good in a B-list Julia Roberts kind of way, drones her every word in a pitch-perfect monotone, and forgets to blink for hours at a time. The funniest (and creepiest) part of the "making-of" featurette included on Along Came a Spider's DVD release is Potter's anecdote about the film's weapons expert telling her that the spectacle of her firing a gun six times without blinking is "the strangest thing I've ever seen."
Perverse credit is due Tamahori and Moss for presenting Freeman with a series of prosaic monologues that finally manage to make the powerful actor look like a blowhard, an idiot, a dinosaur. As written, Alex Cross is such a colossal bore that I swear I caught Freeman nodding off a time or two in the middle of one of his interminable pontifications. When Cross leans back in a chair with a faraway glaze in his grandfatherly peepers (roughly once every five minutes), treat it with the same dread you would when that weird uncle who stills hears the helicopters does the same. For those keeping score, young Mika Boorem and Anton Yelchin (who plays a Russian classmate) reunite in Hearts in Atlantis, a movie that is not quite as bad as this--though it tries.
Paramount's Along Came the Spider DVD is bare-bones in the special features department, but no expense has been spared with the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Shadow detail is outstanding, edge-enhancement nonexistent, and colour separation tremendous. It is a presentation of such shining specificity that, as I said above, Soneji's make-up and the film's instances of CGI look glaringly fake. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is at its best during a scene in a rainstorm that ends with a shootout and a crash. Jerry Goldsmith's orchestral score is well served and the dialogue is easy to understand. The disc is rounded out by a theatrical trailer (non-enhanced 1.85:1) and the aforementioned featurette, which is literally a rehashing of the plot supported by a few B-roll outtakes and snippets of canned interviews lacking in even the most rudimentary of insights. Originally published: October 27, 2001.