Published on December 5th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Along Came a Spider 
Summary: It borrows its fair share from superior thrillers like 'Silence of the Lambs' and 'Seven' but this movie is effectively dark--plus has a hell of a twist ending. This could have been a longer series.
R | 103 min.
Director: Lee Tamahori | Screenplay: Marc Moss (from James Patterson’s novel)
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Monica Potter, Michael Wincott
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
James Patterson’s criminal profiler Alex Cross is one of the stronger roles available for African Americans in the thriller genre. Sure, when it was announced that Madea himself would step into the role in a 2012 incarnation, eyes everywhere rolled in unison but once upon a time, the role belonged to one of Hollywood’s greatest performers.
Morgan Freeman first played the brilliant detective in 1997’s Kiss the Girls, an adaptation of Patterson’s second Cross novel. In 2001, when Paramount decided to finance another entry in the series, Freeman reprised his role. However, since he was 64 years old at the time Along Came a Spider was released, it was clear there wasn’t much a future for Freeman in the role.
This film, directed by Lee Tamahori (The Edge, Die Another Day), sees Cross mentally shaken after the death of his partner in a botched sting operation. He’s all but retired from the force when a Senator’s daughter is kidnapped from her posh private school by a trusted former teacher. Cross teams up with shamed secret service agent Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter from Saw and NBC’s Parenthood) to track the girl, and her kidnapper down. But as the pair get closer to finding them, it becomes clear that this is more than just a simple kidnapping for ransom.
The 1990s may have been the best decade ever for the crime thriller genre. Directors like David Fincher, Jonathan Demme and Bryan Singer made instant classics of Seven, The Silence of the Lambs and The Usual Suspects, respectively–not only great films but solid box office successes as well. Along Came a Spider borrows heavily the mood of those pictures, as well as the dreary aesthetic (like Seven, there are few scenes in this movie which don’t feature falling rain). But unlike those movies, Along Came a Spider doesn’t feel completely fresh outside of its lead character.
It’s astounding to say that having an African American lead in a detective movie would be novel in 2001 but while Clarice Starling broke down some barriers for smart female leads in Demme’s masterpiece–it’s safe to say black audiences were still waiting for their turn. Cross isn’t a particularly original character, he’s a mentally damaged but brilliant cop that thrives on criminals that have enough ego to leave him breadcrumb clues to bring them down. Still, seeing a great actor like Freeman play the part in a refined, dignified manor, is refreshing because he doesn’t have to act like an exaggerated badass a la John Shaft. Cross is one of those rare characters in a Hollywood picture that is able to be black yet not prescribe to any stereotypes, he’s just a hell of a detective that happens to be African American.
Like those other films I mentioned, Along Came a Spider features the requisite surprise reveal at its climax…and this one works well. About halfway through the film’s fast-moving 103 minutes, the villainous Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott) begins to lose his grip as his methods seem to start slipping out of control. As usual, Cross is well ahead of the audience and by the time the final twist is revealed, it effectively blind sides you.
I need to give Tamahori’s film props for its use of cyberspace as a storytelling device. The children at the kidnapping victim’s school take advanced classes in using the web, effectively giving them low-level hacking skills. Soneji uses the internet to plant clues for Cross to find, rather than handwritten notes like older films, making him a more modern villain. There is one sequence where Cross is led on a trek across Washington D.C., answering a series of payphones, which is highly reminiscent of 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance, minus the fun puzzles.
If you’re a diehard Patterson fan though, I suspect you’ll have more than a few issues with Marc Moss’s screenplay. From what I’ve read on the internet, a few major plot points are changed, mostly to pick up the pace of the picture. For instance, two characters are shot and killed on screen rather than being taken to prison for the justice system to handle, as was written in the novel. Also, a romantic storyline between Cross and Flannigan does not exist in the movie, despite being part of their dynamic in the pages of Patterson’s version.
Along Came a Spider is an above-average crime thriller, mostly due to Freeman’s presence, but the story’s twists are enough to keep you on your toes. The storyline of a kidnapping by an egomaniac criminal with an apparent wish to be caught is hardly new but the film is well-paced, leaving little room for boredom or overthinking…but wait, how did a certain character know where Soneji’s boat was docked?! Oh my, that’s a huge gun!