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Character Abandonment 

Along Came a Spider (R)
Paramount Pictures

After a rip-roaring opening car chase scene that promises much more action and wit than the movie delivers, Along Came a Spider favors surprisingly futile plot twists over character and story development. This is a movie that's constantly trying to razzle-dazzle the audience with jarring narrative jumps and divisive bouts of exposition. Morgan Freeman, reprising the role of forensic psychologist detective Dr. Alex Cross from another James Patterson novel made celluloid, Kiss the Girls, does a respectable job of single-handedly holding the film together. An unshakable actor capable of youthful athleticism, dignified logic and emotional depths far greater than the script provides, he is the sole reason to see this otherwise unsatisfying exploitation thriller.

Months after losing a police partner in a sting operation gone bad, Cross is taunted back into action when private high-school teacher Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott) dodges two years' worth of Secret Service surveillance to kidnap a senator's daughter from the well-guarded confines of a Washington, D.C. school. Soneji is a disguise artist scoundrel -- turns out he's been painstakingly applying prosthetic makeup every day for two years to set up a kidnapping that's really just bait for another abduction that will bring him fame comparable to the "crime of the century" Lindbergh baby-snatching case. But Soneji leaves behind obvious clues hinting at his desire to be collared by Alex Cross, the man he believes to be his most astute opponent.

A trail of suspense thriller clichs is laid down so meticulously that you can almost hear the screenwriter sweating over how to kick sand over the film's predictable plot to keep the audience's attention. Cross teams up with Secret Service agent Jezzie Flannigan (Patch Adams' Monica Potter) after her humiliating debacle as the agent in charge of a three-year surveillance effort aimed at protecting the children of high-profile American and foreign politicians. Flannigan forces her way into Cross's investigation as his partner in recovering the girl and capturing Soneji.

The easy-on-the-eyes Potter gives a competent performance that ultimately misses because she isn't given that extra scene or two that would give the audience a glimpse of what her character is capable of doing. As the plot demands, she gets in over her head in making choices that would compensate for the twisting transitions.

Director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) is visibly a capable director trying to better his career with a big-studio picture that will look good on his rsum. The same director who commanded such above average movies as Mulholland Falls and The Edge is, unfortunately, caught in Hollywood's constant drought of worthy material.

The pleasures in Spider come from watching Alex Cross struggle with his own psyche in solving a hollow crime. Freeman could mesmerize an audience by reading a phone book because he has a personal motivation that is never at peace. Unlike lesser actors (Tom Hanks and Whoopi Goldberg come to mind), the 63-year-old actor succeeds because he grapples with things he doesn't know rather than glowing over some self-possessed humanitarian blissfulness. Freeman is a uniquely American actor who shares with audiences some of the inestimable values he's saved for himself as a human being. That's the golden quality of Freeman's powerful acting; he always gives away a little bit of the stuff he's been saving up from the day he was born.

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