ALONG CAME A SPIDER – DVD review

Despite the fact that you are going to hear a good deal of negative criticism from me about this film in the next few minutes, and despite my lack of any serious regard for its credibility, let me begin by telling you that there are parts of “Along Came a Spider” that I liked almost enough to recommend it. Not the least of these is Morgan Freeman, always a commanding presence in any motion picture and one of my favorite actors, in the lead role. Some nifty if unbelievable plot twists helped, too, and a generally dark, earnest tone. If only it were enough.

If you saw this movie’s forerunner of several years earlier, 1997’s “Kiss the Girls,” you’ll recognize Freeman’s reprise of the lead character, Dr. Alex Cross– police detective, psychologist, and best-selling author of a book on serial killers.

As the movie opens, he is conducting a sting operation on a potential killer, following his partner in a helicopter while she speeds along an expressway sitting beside the suspected culprit in his Corvette. The situation itself is preposterous; no officer would place herself in a confined area with a potentially violent person in that manner, I’m sure, but the situation gets even more absurd when it goes wrong; she pulls a gun, he jams on the brakes, and the car swerves off the road and hangs precariously over the side of a bridge before plunging both passengers about a mile into the raging waters below. The scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Since it’s not done tongue-in-cheek, Bond style, we know this film is going to test the bounds of our suspension of disbelief to their limit.

The scene also gives Cross the opportunity to retire from the force, as he feels responsible for his partner’s death, something he must do if the lead villain in the story is going to feel any challenge in luring him back from his withdrawal. Which is exactly what happens next. A baddie named Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott) kidnaps the twelve-year-old daughter, Megan (Mika Boorem), of a Senator (Michael Moriarity) and his wife (Penelope Ann Miller), and then contacts Cross with information about the crime.

Seems Soneji wants Cross on the case because he’s trying to draw attention to himself as the greatest kidnapper of the century. To be the greatest, he needs to have the greatest adversary on his tail and then defeat him. He has worked for years to make his plan foolproof. Here again believability is stretched to the utmost. He uses a mask, you see, a facial mask so perfect no one detects it, apparently for years, while he becomes the trusted teacher of the kidnap victim. Well, masks were the downfall of “Mission: Impossible 2,” and they’re among the many downfalls of this movie, also. I mean, no amount of makeup can fool the eye at close range, regardless of what today’s uninspired scriptwriters would have us believe.

Anyway, along the way Cross acquires a new and unwanted partner, a beautiful young blonde, Secret Service agent Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), who was in charge of protecting the girl at the school from which she was kidnapped. Now, Flannigan feels compelled to help get the girl back. The film piles one cliché upon another as we next learn that Flannigan has a favorite shotgun at home, a handsome Turkish-made gun that her father won in a poker game with “aces and eights,” the notorious “dead man’s hand” held by Wild Bill Hickok when he was killed. Oh, and the FBI agent assigned to head up the case, Oliver MacArthur (Dylan Baker), is a typical know-it-all at first who has to be convinced that Cross and Flannigan have any business interfering with his assignment.

As in “Kiss the Girls,” the villain turns the investigation into a game, daring Cross to find him. Additionally, we learn that Soneji is interested in more than a Senator’s daughter to stake his reputation on, and he quickly inaugurates a scheme to kidnap the son of the Russian President as well! Nothing is ever simple in these farfetched melodramas.

I have to admit, though, I did like some of the mystery involved, some the gamesmanship the heavy employed in his pursuit of stardom–short of the aforementioned mask. I also liked Freeman’s portrayal of the policeman, as always cool, controlled, and totally in command of the circumstances. Trouble is, he’s so in control we almost feel sorry for the villain, who obviously hasn’t a chance against this guy no matter how smart he thinks he is.

What I didn’t like, however, was the film’s lack of suspense. The altogether self-reliant little girl seems entirely capable of taking care of herself; and, besides, if she dies, Soneji’s plan of self-aggrandizement dies with her. So, there’s little sense of urgency in getting the girl back in any due course. And while I admired the kidnapper’s cunning and daring, by the film’s second half I was beginning to find him and his machinations tedious. Worse, I found the conspiracy involved and the amount of time (which was years) to plan it harebrained, given that it’s all predicated on one fellow’s obsessions of grandeur. Not even the several surprises at the film’s end were enough to impress me once I had lost interest in everything else.

Video:
I even lost interest quickly in the DVD’s picture and sound, despite their generally high level of excellence. The screen size measures an impressive 2.13:1 ratio across a normal TV screen and is enhanced for 16×9 sets. Colors are natural enough, if sometimes looking a little faded and rough, and delineation is not quite as sharp or well detailed as it is on so many other Paramount silver-disc releases.

Audio:
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is also good, especially in its subtle use of the surround speakers to replicate the sounds of motorboats and subway trains. Yet it, too, begins to seem merely perfunctory as the story progresses from one pedestrian posture to another.

Extras:
As for special features, the powers that be at Paramount offer very few. There are English and French spoken language options and English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing. There’s a fourteen-minute featurette, “The Making of Along Came a Spider,” that includes a number of interviews with cast members but works mostly as a promo for the film. If you’ve already seen the film, the featurette doesn’t add much to your understanding of it. Then there are a scant twelve (twelve!) scene selections, and a theatrical trailer.

Parting Shots:
It surprises me a bit that Paramount would have wanted to bring back the Alex Cross character at all, given that “Kiss the Girls” was itself only a middling entry in the serial-killer genre. Maybe the film did bigger box-office business than I thought. It also surprises me that Morgan Freeman, who should be in the position of choosing any role he wants, would elect to do Cross again, especially in a script that would seem at first glance so hackneyed. But who am I to second guess.

“Along Came a Spider” does little to enhance the reputation of mystery thrillers in general and little to solidify Freeman’s claim to importance as a serious actor. In short, “Along Came a Spider” is a promising piece of business that quickly turns into a typical Hollywood throwaway. Too bad Freeman had to be thrown away with it.

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