Morgan Freeman has sad eyes. They seem sad for a reason, as if heavy with wisdom culled from years of experience and observation, all too terrible or too complicated to recount. These eyes, so recognizable and sympathetic, infuse all his roles with a sort of implacable sobriety and judgment. Whether playing the brutal pimp Fast Black in Street Smart (1987), the painfully loyal Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), the mournful William Somerset in Seven (1995), or even the punctiliously moral President in Deep Impact (1998), Freeman brings weight.
And now, in Along Came a Spider, he brings franchise. You might usually think of franchise players as action heroes—whoever’s wearing the Batcape at the moment, Harrison Ford as the Tom Clancy guy, Wesley Snipes as Blade. And so there’s potential for surprise in Freeman’s work as Alex Cross, the gifted forensic psychologist and criminal profiler who first appeared in 1997’s Kiss the Girls, a straight-up regular detective film based on James Patterson’s book, that comes with all the usual ingredients—a girl in distress, a couple of psycho killers, and some gruesome murder details.
There’s potential for surprise, but no surprise. This isn’t to say that watching Freeman isn’t a treat in itself—he does what he does scrupulously well, invariably. But everything else in Along Came a Spider is just more of the same. Directed sans pizzazz by Lee Tamahori. (Once Were Warriors), it sets up Cross in another kidnapping plot, stymied by another fiendish genius, Soneji (Michael Wincott), the perennially none-too-bright FBI establishment, and a usual series of plot twists that aren’t so much startling as they are convenient. Worse, Along Came a Spider opens with some clunky exposition, giving motive for those sad eyes and so, missing the point that their mystery has always been the reason for their appeal and significance. The background is trite: Cross is on an undercover job, something goes dreadfully wrong, and his partner dies. On top of all this, the scene is a badly digitized bit ripped off from Cliffhanger (now that’s desperate, stealing from pre-comeback Sly).
Cut to months later, and Cross is depressed. There he is, magnifying headgear and teeny little tools in hand, putting together a model ship. He is, as a friend tells him, “working hard to look busy.” At this point, he gets a phone call from Soneji, showing off that he’s just kidnapped the young daughter of U.S. Senator Rose (Michael Moriarty) and wife Lauren (Penelope Ann Miller, who still looks pert, even as someone’s distraught mom). Thank goodness that the 10-year-old kidnap victim, Megan (Mika Boorem) is atypically smart and spunky, for she delivers the film’s liveliest moments in her efforts to outwit her self-absorbed captor: when he pretends to be concerned about her confusion, she snarls, “I know what’s going on. You’re a kidnapper and a sick weirdo.” So there.
Meanwhile, Cross camps out with a crew of mostly predictable secondary characters. The FBI guy (Dylan Baker) is efficient and barks orders (“Come on people!”), the cops are forever a step behind Cross and the villain, the surveillance technology is impressive, the parents are fretful, and the Shady Guy is, well, the Shady Guy (to say more would be to give the plot away; suffice it to say that you’ll know him when you see him). The one character who is possibly worthy of Cross’s (and perhaps our) interest is his new partner, Jezzie (Monica Potter, a.k.a. the blonder, shorter Julia Roberts). She’s the Secret Service agent who was responsible for Megan and so, has obviously and severely screwed up. Cross sees her act all teary-eyed and full of self-loathing because she’s allowed this tragedy to transpire and her boss is mad at her. And of course, this is exactly what makes her appealing to Cross, who’s also feeling guilty and looking for some payback. Or, not payback exactly (Cross is not so crass), but maybe a little ego-boost, so he can at least recover his own sense of mission.
But if Cross’s choice of Jezzie is understandable (he takes her against the advice of the barking FBI guy), it’s also frustrating for the rest of us, who can’t help but know immediately that she is an absolutely terrible detective. She seems not to have noticed, during all of the two years that this fellow Soneji has been teaching at Megan’s pricey proto-prep school, that he’s wearing about twelve pounds of make-up on his face. Where it’s easy to forgive overt plastic and padding in broad comedy (say, Martin Lawrence dragging in Big Momma’s House), a lame disguise is harder to accept when the entire dramatic plot hinges on the idea that other characters do not see what you can’t help but see in a split second’s worth of a look at this clown. This inane plotting doesn’t bode well for the rest of Along Came a Spider.
And so it goes: nonsense rules the day. Cross knows more than anyone else, because that is his function in the film, but the white folks—and he is surrounded by them—repeatedly dismiss or deny him. Partly this is because he’s so precisely an anti action hero, and doesn’t perform in the usual “authoritative” ways. He doesn’t usually shoot his gun (and when he does, it’s a damn serious moment), leap off buildings or drive cars fast (in fact, he lets other people drive, more often than not). Instead, Cross ponders, often and for long periods of time. And when he does come up with an answer, he doesn’t shout it out, but makes a stern face and walks out of the frame, as if he has something mor important to be doing than explaining stuff (to us or whoever happens to be in frame with him). The problem in this film is that the answers he comes up with are telegraphed or spelled out ahead of time. So while you might feel nervous for him when he’s walking into a trap or something, you also know what he’s supposed to know before he knows it. This isn’t good strategy for a movie whose most compelling asset is its protagonist’s unique combination of diamond-hard brilliance and sad vulnerability.
More’s the pity then, that Cross is here reduced to tardy, head-slapping epiphanies and cornball paternalism toward Jezzie. He takes her under his big wing and teaches her, as far as I can tell, how to sit through rainy stakeouts, appear thoughtful, and figure out unfigurable clues. She manages the first two parts (though more often than not her thoughtful look evokes audience laughter), and obediently follows him along for the third. This following part is especially hilarious when they start running around DC, trying to make a ransom delivery according to Soneji’s increasingly ridiculous directions. Literally, Cross is jogging from payphone to payphone, gasping a la Bruce Willis in the last Die Hard movie, told to get from Point A to Point B in twelve minutes, then Point C to Point D in four. (Folks familiar with DC—like those at the screening I attended—may find this part especially comical.) By the time he and Jezzie reach Union Station and Cross jumps on a metro train (that, incidentally appears to be from another planet, or at least nowhere near DC), the audience has lost all faith, though I think it’s supposed to be building to a dramatic climax. From here, Along Came a Spider collapses under the weight of its own preposterousness. Still, Freeman’s sober mien and formidable presence make you wish that the rest of the movie would keep up. Hopefully, Alex Cross’ next resurrection might come in less unwieldy vehicle.