Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Along Came a Spider (2001)
Studio Line: Paramount Home Entertainment - The game is far from over.

Morgan Freeman reprises his Kiss The Girls role as Alex Cross in this spellbinding psychological thriller that is "a knockout with a surprise twist."

After the harrowing death of his partner, detective and best-selling author Alex Cross has retreated to the peace of retirement. But when a brilliant criminal (Michael Wincott) kidnaps a senator's young daughter, Alex is lured back into action. Teamed with the Secret Service agent (Monica Potter) assigned to protect the missing girl, Alex follows a serpentine trail of clues that leads him to a stunning discovery - the kidnapper wants more than just ransom… he wants Alex's help in documenting the crime of the century. With time running out, Alex plunges through a tangled web of danger and deceit to stop a madman and save an innocent victim's life.

Director: Lee Tamahori
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Monica Potter, Michael Wincott, Jay O. Sanders, Dylan Baker, Billy Burke, Penelope Ann Miller, Mika Boorem, Anton Yelchin
Box Office: Budget: $28 million. Opening Weekend: $16.712 million (2530 screens). Domestic Gross: $74.058 million.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1 & Dolby Surround 2.0, French Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 12 chapters; rated R; 103 min.; $29.99; street date 9/25/01.
Supplements: “The Making of Along Came a Spider” Featurette; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - James Patterson | Score soundtrack - Jerry Goldsmith

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/D

With 2001’s Along Came a Spider, it looks like Morgan Freeman might have established a burgeoning little film franchise for himself. Spider offers a continuation of the adventures of Dr. Alex Cross, a brilliant Washington DC police department forensic psychologist. Taken from a series of books by James Patterson, Cross first appeared in 1997’s Kiss the Girls.

That film provided a modest success. With a budget of only $27 million, it eventually took in an unspectacular but respectable $60 million at the box office. Surprisingly, Spider cost only an additional $1 million, but it grabbed almost 25 percent more money; eventually it nabbed a gross of $74 million.

When I discovered that fact, it surprised me. I knew that Spider did decently, and I also was aware that Girls didn’t cause a box office stampede, but I guess I thought that the first flick did better than the second. (By the way, I’m reluctant to call Spider a “sequel” because it doesn’t continue the story told in the initial film; the only connection comes through the Cross character.)

One area of consistency relates to the movies themselves. When I saw Girls theatrically in 1997, I thought it offered a modestly compelling experience, but it was nothing special; it seemed like another film in the Se7en vein, but without that classic’s inspiration or depth. My opinions of Spider were nearly identical. As a whole, I enjoyed the movie, but it felt like a pretty ordinary thriller that lacked much spark.

At the start of Spider, Cross experiences a seriously traumatic event. As the police pursue a serial killer who targets women with short hair, the operation goes bad and his partner - used as the bait for the psycho - dies. Cross blames himself for these events and he goes into professional seclusion. However, another crime lures him back to the job. A teacher at an exclusive private school abducts the daughter of a senator and purposefully involves Cross in the case. Known only by the apparent alias Gary Soneji, the baddie - played by perpetual movie scuzzball Michael Wincott - does this for the fame, as he wants to become a modern day Bruno Hauptmann.

Also involved in the case is secret service agent Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter). She worked at the school attended by little Megan Rose (Mika Borem) and feels as though she failed to do her duty. The two work together to unravel all of the clues and ensure the safe return of Megan, although the precocious youngster has some smart ideas of her own.

As a whole, Spider offered a very rote thriller. The plot itself seemed pretty ordinary, as we’ve seen many films that followed the same cat and mouse structure. The baddie wants someone to respect his intelligence, and he seeks a worthy opponent to taunt and tease.

Unfortunately, sparks never fly, despite the presence of two extremely capable actors. For my money, Freeman’s as good as it gets. Through good movies - such as Glory and The Shawshank Redemption - and poor ones - like Chain Reaction and Under Suspicion - Freeman almost always functions as the best parts of these flicks. That was true of Spider, but I thought Freeman seemed a little subdued and uninvolved in the proceedings. Perhaps that’s because the film usually required him to be reactive. Sure, in Se7en he spent much of his time reacting to the crimes of John Doe, but he also showed an eager pursuit of any leads he could obtain. During Spider, this didn’t seem true; it felt as though Cross spent much of the movie simply waiting for the criminal to fall into his lap.

It didn’t help that the interplay between Cross and Soneji lacked excitement. As I noted, Wincott plays villains well, but he felt too restrained here. It seemed like he wanted to avoid his usual surliness and become a more sophisticated nasty, but it didn’t really work. Due to this, his interchanges with Freeman were fairly drab and unexciting; there never seemed to be much challenge in the relationship.

Potter also maintained a lackluster presence, and she remains an active distraction due to her spooky resemblance to Julia Roberts. I could live with it if she just looked like Roberts, but the fact she sounds so much like her makes the situation creepier. Otherwise I have no real objection to Potter; she’s competent but unexceptional here, which always seems to be the case with her work.

In spite of itself, Spider did manage to provide a reasonable level of suspense. The ultimate outcome was never in doubt; I won’t reveal the ending, but suffice it to say this ain’t Se7en. Nonetheless, the movie kept me reasonably involved and intrigued. Even a somewhat bland Freeman is better than 90 percent of all other actors, so his presence maintained my interest.

One thing I definitely disliked about Spider, however, related to its many twists and turns. The film’s last act contained a ridiculous number of double crosses and “shocking” events, and these felt manipulative and forced. It seemed as though the movie used them just to be different; they served little purpose. Actually, I thought they detracted from the story; it would have worked better if the focus remained on the Cross/Soneji battle and omitted these additional machinations.

I also thought the opening sequence was pointless and felt like an attempt to inject cheap pathos into the film. There was absolutely no reason that Cross needed to suffer the trauma seen in the movie’s beginning. It didn’t affect the story or his actions; once he got back into the swing of things, there appeared to be no connection to his earlier concerns. I can’t even call the death of his partner a plot device, for it had no impact on the story, and there was no need to have Cross seem burned out at the start of the film; why this occurred seems mysterious to me.

Speaking of the opening sequence, the shot in which the car crashed offered some of the crummiest computer graphics I’ve seen in years. Man, I thought the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns looked weak; he seemed photo-realistic compared to the Playstation outtake that was the car wreck. At least Spider can blame its poor effects on a low budget, though.

Although I realize I griped a lot about Along Came a Spider during the preceding paragraphs, in the end I thought it was a moderately enjoyable film. However, it fell short of its goals, and it seemed like little more than a decent but unmemorable exercise. It was generally entertaining and it kept me going, but that was about it. Hopefully any future Alex Cross adventures will take better advantage of the character’s potential and the talents of Morgan Freeman.

The DVD:

Along Came a Spider appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although most of the film looked absolutely gorgeous, enough problems cropped up during the movie to knock my grade down a peg or two.

Sharpness looked consistently excellent. At all times the picture appeared wonderfully crisp and well-defined. I saw no examples of softness or fuzziness during this accurate and distinct image. No moiré effects or jagged edges appeared during the movie, and only a smidgen of edge enhancement reared its ugly head.

Colors seemed to be terrifically natural and warm. The movie generally utilized a gentle and realistic palette, though some hues looked purposefully cool to match the tenor of the flick. Nonetheless, the colors came across as accurate and vivid, and they showed no concerns related to noise or other issues. Black levels were very deep and rich, and shadow detail looked clear and appropriately opaque. Actually, the movie’s finest-looking segment took place in a low light situation; when Jezzie and Alex sit in their car during a stakeout, the picture appeared absolutely stunning.

So far so great, right? Unfortunately, no, as some other problems kept Spider from achieving greatness. I found a surprisingly high number of print flaws throughout the movie. A little light grain appeared during some interiors, but the main culprit was grit. Little black specks showed up during quite a lot of the film. These never became terribly intense, but they popped up pretty frequently, and a brand-new flick such as this should offer a virtually defect-free experience. Without these flaws, Along Came a Spider easily would have earned at least an “A-“, but as it stands, I couldn’t give the image anything higher than a “B+”; much of it looked amazing, but the dirtiness of the print definitely detracted from the experience.

I found the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Along Came a Spider to lack the terrific highs of the picture, but it also failed to deliver any of the image’s concerns; it was a consistent solid experience. The soundfield provided a nicely naturalistic and involving affair. The forward spectrum dominated the proceedings and offered fine stereo separation for the score. Effects also were placed accurately and distinctly, and they blended together quite well.

As for the surrounds, they were a little subdued at times, but they seemed to provide a nice layer of reinforcement for both effects and music. When necessary, they came to life solidly. Scenes that involved gunfire were quite powerful, and I also really liked the shot in which a SWAT team plowed through a house; from the punch of the initial impact to their movement in the building, the atmosphere appeared believable and seamlessly engrossing.

Audio quality also seemed to be very solid. Dialogue always sounded warm and natural, and I heard no problems related to intelligibility or edginess. Effects were crisp and distinct at all times, and they showed no signs of distortion. Those elements seemed to be clean and accurate, and they packed an appropriate punch, such as through the loud “bang” of gunshots. Jerry Goldsmith’s score came across quite well, as the movie displayed fine fidelity and nice depth. Bass response was fairly good for most of the track, but the score provided the strongest low-end elements, and they nicely complemented the music. Ultimately, the soundtrack of Along Came a Spider lacked the serious pizzazz warranted to earn an “A”-level grade, but that shouldn’t denote any flaws; it worked very well for the material.

Despite the film’s modest box office success, the DVD of Along Came a Spider doesn’t offer much in the way of supplements. In addition to the movie’s theatrical trailer - which stupidly gives away part of the flick’s ending - we get The Making of Along Came a Spider. Subtitled in both English and French, this 14-minute program offers a very superficial and promotional look at the film. It provides film clips, brief shots from the set, and short interview snippets with author James Patterson, producer David Brown, executive producer Marty Hornstein, and actors Freeman, Potter, Wincott, Penelope Ann Miller, and Dylan Baker.

Don’t expect anything more than a very glossy overview of the movie. Mainly we get a synopsis of the plot and characters, and we hear a few minor insights about the production. Make that very minor, for you’ll learn virtually nothing of use during the featurette. As a promotional piece, it seems decent, but it doesn’t do else, and it feels like a very bland extra. Actually, the show did include one funny bit. After we hear Potter tell us that she never blinked when she shot a gun, we see her clearly flinch as she does so. I don’t think the program’s producers did this intentionally, but it amused me nonetheless.

Overall, Along Came a Spider offered a moderately interesting thriller. It benefited from the presence of one great actor and a few good ones, but it did little to differentiate itself from the pack. In the end, it came across like yet another mildly effective detective story but nothing more. The DVD offered generally excellent picture and sound but lacked any substantial supplements. Along Came a Spider might merit a rental for fans of the actors or the genre, but it wasn’t strong enough to deserve more than that.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.1355 Stars Number of Votes: 59
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