I knew of two movies involving the character of Alex Cross: Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls. I've seen neither and was interested as to what this mini-franchise is all about. Plus I think Morgan Freeman is the bomb and was thrilled to hear he was the movie lead.
The movie starts out with Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman) following his partner, a pretty female cop who is a passenger to a known serial killer. It's all a clever sting (oh the insect metaphors, I can't help myself!), but the plan falls apart when the serial killer decides he'd like a little pre-warm-up activity from his passenger.
In an inexplicable moment of vulnerability, Cross' partner starts wailing that she doesn't want her face shoved into the lap of a serial killer. Which is understandable, but not what we would expect of a cop trained to go undercover as serial killer bait. Sure enough, the bad guy discovers the cop's ploy when he finds her earpiece (whatever happened to wires?) and things go downhill from there.
The cop draws a gun on her companion, who freaks out. Or maybe it's the cop who freaks out. She shoots him dead, the car spins out of control and lands on the edge of a bridge (or a dam, hard to tell). She screams helplessly for Cross' help, who can't save her. She plunges to her death.
This makes Cross understandably morose about his profession. What is his profession, exactly? It seems he's a cop. But he's written a book about serial killers, so perhaps he's a profiler. Since I'm writing my own book about this very subject, I found it curious that Cross' expertise is never fully explained. Every mystery author wants his good guy to be a Bob Ressler or a John Douglas. But it takes work to pull off these men as actual people as opposed to walking caricatures of Sherlock Holmes.
Children of important diplomats and politicians are sequestered in a high-security school known as the Cathedral. There, kids attend weird classes with projects like, "find Charles Lindbergh on the Web in the smallest number of hops." Get it? Web? Spider?
I know, I was stunned by the connection too.
As it turns out, the teacher of the class is actually a highly trained kidnapper, Gary Soneji (played by the gravelly Michael Wincott of The Crow and The Three Musketeers fame). Soneji's been buried within the Cathedral hierarchy for two years using latex appliances and an amazing device that conceals his fingertips.
We're never told where Soneji acquired these skills. My guess is he was an ex-government agent of some country. But the movie deems those facts unimportant. What's important is that Soneji knows of Cross--he's read Cross' book, after all--and decides he will provide the kidnapping of the century by mimicking the kidnapping of the Lindbergh Baby. This of course means he makes an obligatory phone call, voice disguised, to Cross, thus dragging him into the plot.
Soneji kidnaps poor Megan Rose (Mika Boorem), daughter of Senator Hank Rose (Michael Moriarty, of Law and Order fame, who only gets like three lines). But really, Megan's just a ploy to get closer to another, more important child (Dmitri Stardubov, played by Anton Yelchin) of a Russian diplomat. Imagine, if Soneji kidnapped the little Russian boy, there'd be an "INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT."
Those words are expressed over and over. We're never entirely sure what the implications are, but they sound really bad. Why is the Russian boy in an American school? Why would it create an incident? Who is the kid's father, anyway?
Bristling after the embarrassing loss of her charge, Agent Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter) is determined to catch the bad guy. That's JEZZIE, not JESSIE, for some reason I cannot fathom.
After all, it's thanks to her bumbling and another agent, Ben Devine (Billy Burke), that the Megan was kidnapped. Ollie McArthur (Dylan Baker), another agent, is put on the case, for the sole purpose of insulting Cross and then barking orders at people.
The character of Soneji seems awkwardly conceived. Is her supposed to be a serial killer? We discover that Soneji did burn down his parents' house when he was young, a trait that's definitely evident in serial killers. He's most decidedly the "organized" type, capable of holding down a job, purchasing a boat, and doing a lot of other things that require an orderly, structured mind. But he's so one-dimensional, so utterly focused on being known as a kidnapper, that his later confession about his past seems forced. In essence, Soneji feels like a villain some writer (James Patterson wrote the novel, Marc Moss wrote the screenplay) whipped up to be a foil for our hero.
It turns out the kids use "Stego" encryption to conceal the "equivalent of passing notes" in .GIF files that they send to each other in class. Megan and Dmitri use it and Soneji does too. He leaves clues to the kidnapping embedded in those .GIF files, revolving around Charles Lindbergh. One of those clues leads to the World's Clearest Webcam, which focuses on a patch of wall in Soneji's home (!).
It's a sad statement about the movie industry that many of the plot points that lead to the real bad guys have to do with incompetence on the part of the authorities. There are several situations throughout the film where people don't do what they should to catch the bad guy, but the movie provides these moments as obvious, "duh, they were incompetent on PURPOSE," examples.
See, I was far too preoccupied with the fact that Soneji walks in and out of peoples' homes unchallenged, that he seems to know where everyone is at all times, to start questioning other stupidity like security guards not reacting fast enough or shooting when they should. What's thrown out as proof of another, secret plan to make money off of a kidnapping is lost in the morass of confusing plot points. In other words, if you're going to use discrepancies in character actions to reveal the mystery, everything else going on in the movie better be sewed up tightly.
The person who carries most of the movie is really Boorem, who plays a clever, frightened girl quite capable of escaping on her own, thank-you-very-much. She manages not one but two major escapes from the bad guys without help from anybody. Boorem's scenes are the best part of the film.
Potter is suitably nervous and frustrated as a pretty agent, but she's a little too severe to empathize with. That said, she has such a striking resemblance to Julia Roberts that it's distracting. She has the same smile, same drawl, same arching eyebrows. Potter just doesn't have the charm, but then again that might be appropriate for the plot.
Then there's Freeman, who adopts the tired, world-weary narrative that he did better in Se7en and The Shawshank Redemption. At one point, Cross has to run all over town at the kidnapper's whim, such that the scene becomes comical rather than compelling. Freeman deserves better.
Along Came a Spider tries to be serious, mysterious, action-packed, scary, and ironic. We know this because the music forcefully tells us when those moments are. But the movie just doesn't have a compelling plot to back it up. Even with the major twist mid-movie.
In a lot of ways, the film reminded me of the Watcher. And that's not a compliment.