Along Came a Spider: Thriller Starring Morgan Freeman

Reprising the role of Alex Cross, the police forensic detective-psychologist he first played in “Kiss the Girls,” the terrific actor Morgan Freeman brings a measure of dignity and integrity to “Along Came a Spider,” in a performance that both transcends and elevates the psychological thriller way above its genre. Director Lee Tamahori infuses the new film, which is a prequel to “Kiss the Girls,” with a style that differs radically from that of the 1997 film.

Despite similarities between the two films, Along Came a Spider is a low-key thriller that boasts more characters and a narrative that’s replete of twists and turns up to the very last moments. Nonetheless. the missing presence of Ashley Judd, Kiss’s co-star, will hurt the commercial prospects of new film, which is likely to enjoy a moderate run at the B.O., failing to reach the mark (over $60 million) of the earlier picture.

In its dark visuals, Kiss the Girls was very much cut from the cloth of The Silence of the Lambs and particularly David Fincher’s Seven, which has become a model for thriller-horror pictures. As a suspenser, it had a simple story, based on the relationship of Cross and a young woman (Ashley Judd), who’s forcibly abducted by a sexual sociopath but escapes from his harem-like prison. The 1997 film, adapted from Patterson’s second novel, didn’t have a particularly strong villain, who was mostly seen masked though his voice was creepy enough to scare audiences.

In both films, Alex Cross has a strong personal motivation to get involved in the crimes. In Kiss the Girls, his niece was among the girls abducted, and in new one, he loses his female partner in a terrible accident, over which he feels guilty and depressed.

When the story begins, Cross has retreated to the peace of retirement. However, despite his claim that he is through playing mind games with criminals, renowned police detective, psychologist and best-selling author Cross quickly changes his mind when a methodical predator, Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott) commits a daring kidnapping of a senator daughter in the school where he’s teaching. Turning point occurs when the kidnapper leaves a red sneaker as a piece of evidence in Cross’s mailbox.

Obsession with achieving fleeting fame, which recently occupied the center of the trashy action-thriller 15 Minutes, also serves as chief factor in the new picture. Familiar with Cross’s literary success, Soneji wishes to be documented by the detective in what he believes would be the crime of the century.

In Kiss the Girls, there was partnership–and emotional tension–between Cross and a kidnapped woman, whereas here Cross joins forces with Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), an attractive Secret Service agent who was at school the day of the crime and now needs to atone for the abduction taking place right under her watch.

The teaming of Cross and Flannigan is a bit cliche, recalling, among others, the formidable teams of Clint Eastwood and his female partners in the Dirty Harry film series. Here, too, the duo follow a path of few leads, hidden agendas, and a risky ransom drop, while also seeking their own redemption from past failures.

There are more layers and surprises, not all of which are well earned or convincing in this movie than in “Kiss the Girls.” In adapting Patterson’s popular novel, scripter Marc Moss has taken substantial liberties with several characters, changing both names and identities. Furthermore, the cast was reassembled months after wrapping to reshoot the ending, which was not approved by Freeman, also credited as film’s exec producer. Tamahori brought back into the story a character that was dropped out in the earlier version. End result is an uneven thriller that navigates none-too-smoothly between high and thrilling points and many others that are too low-key and deliberate for the genre’s aficionados.

As a character, Cross is a unique creation: a well-trained and educated writer-policeman whose specialty is mind-hunting, which makes his task more complex and cerebral than strictly action-oriented. Arguably the most accomplished actor of his generation, Freeman brings elegance and dignity to his role, showing attention to detail of Cross’ behavioral patterns. Silent and still in the best tradition of American heroes, Freeman add an intellectual dimension to a role that with a different thsep would have been ordinary. At the same time, there’s no denying that Morgan’s modulated acting highlights the gap between his bravura performance and a thriller whose story that’s only one notch above the routine.

After a striking debut in the art house circuit, Once Were Warriors, Kiwi director Lee Tamahori seems interested in making big commercial Hollywood flicks. Though better helmed than “Mulholland Falls,” a failed noir and sophomore jinx, Along Came a Spider suffers from the same problem as Tamahori’s third feature, “The Edge”: It is technically accomplished (particularly Matthew F. Leonetti’s sharp lensing) in an impersonal manner, mostly impressive in its determination not to be a copycat of Seven and its many imitators.