Morgan Freeman is bored by men who shoot first and ask questions later. This is a compliment. Whether he’s inhabiting the role of a hitman in Nurse Betty or of a lifer convict in The Shawshank Redemption, the actor, with his default expression of contemplative repose, invests even the most active or violent of characters with thoughtfulness; then he shoots. He’s a compassionate conservative’s action figure.
By such standards, the role of Dr. Alex Cross — Washington, D.C., police detective and psychologist, and the cop who traps a predator in Along Came a Spider — is a keeper. Indeed, Freeman first fleshed out the hero of James Patterson’s top-selling series of thrillers with fragmented nursery-rhyme titles four years ago in Kiss the Girls. And in strict Crossology, Girls was actually a sequel to this, the first of the Cross novels.
But the reversed order hardly matters. Spider bears little resemblance to the book, aside from the fact that the weblike story is an engagingly sticky trap of mind games and plot tricks as well as action, and that the kidnapper is a brilliant psychopath (of course) named Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott, with a voice like honeyed battery acid), who abducts the daughter of a U.S. senator out of a twisted obsession with the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapper. As in the book, Cross’ partner on the case is a Secret Service agent named Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter, with a voice like Julia Roberts in tight shoes).
Many of the subplots and ancillary preoccupations of Patterson’s book don’t make it into the first produced screenplay of Marc Moss; among them is Cross’ regularly remarked-upon awareness of being an African-American deputy chief of detectives in a predominantly black city. But that’s just as well for New Zealand director Lee Tamahori, who has taken a while to find his artistic footing in Hollywood following his stunning 1994 homegrown debut, Once Were Warriors. (In Mulholland Falls and, to a lesser extent, The Edge, Tamahori’s instinct for emotional sinew was obscured by the seduction of studio fat.) At any rate, the tonic of directing episodes of The Sopranos appears to have been a good workout: Along Came a Spider moves at a taut, well-metered pace, one that allows for scenes of psychological excavation — as when Cross talks to an increasingly distraught Soneji by telephone — as well as scenes of cranked-up action.
At one point, Cross must sprint to hell and back all over D.C. on a ransom drop omnisciently directed by the kidnapper, who paces Cross via a series of calls placed to cell phones and, amazingly, to always working and available pay phones. There’s absolutely no reason to this teasing chase, which doesn’t withstand the scrutiny of logic and inevitably goes on two phone calls too long. But that’s also what makes this thriller such broody fun. While Tamahori trains his camera on the ordinariness of the streets, Morgan Freeman demonstrates he’s capable, extraordinarily, of running and thinking at the same time.