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by: Michael Dequina

The role of Dr. Alex Cross, taken from the pages of James Patterson's best selling novels, is an ideal film series character for Morgan Freeman. A brilliant, if slightly world-weary, criminal profiler and detective, Cross is a perfect match for the air of intelligence and dignity that has become the Oscar-nominated actor's stock in trade. Such a shame, then, that this character and Freeman's formidable talent are trapped in Patterson's preposterous potboiler plots--first in the modest 1997 hit Kiss the Girls and now in the prequel Along Came a Spider. The film not only fails capitalize on the ample room for improvement left its the lackluster predecessor, but sinks the fledgling franchise to new depths--and quite possibly past the point of no return.

The film's opening stages find Cross taking part in a botched sting operation that claims the life of his partner, an experience that causes him to lose his nerve. It is at vulnerable times as these that some madman decides to come out of the woodwork--in this case, Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott), who has kidnapped the daughter (Mika Boorem). Cross is reluctantly brought into the case when Soneji phones him at his house for a little cat and mouse.

And then, nothing. Cross tracks various clues between giving little lessons in the fine points of profiling to his de facto partner, impossibly green Secret Service Agent Jezzie Flannigan, played by Monica Potter as a bundle of perfectly coiffed hair and awkward dramatic pauses. This is all quite dull, but "boring" seems too strong a word--especially when there such inexplicable occurrences to keep viewers scratching their heads and hence awake, such as Cross uncovering a crucial clue by clicking a webpage link that somehow links to a live camera on which he can use a zoom feature.

Director Lee Tamahori and screenwriter Marc Moss do eventually remember the film is a thriller, with the former picking up the slovenly pace and the latter throwing in some twists. The big problem is not the contrived nature of the twists (and are they ever), but how they and the quickened pace is piled on in roughly the final fifteen minutes of the film, as if a late-inning burst of misguided energy can somehow compensate for the cinematic sloth of what came before.

The exception to the laziness is Freeman, who commands the screen with his usual quiet authority. It's great to see him have such a promising franchise role, but if the (already shaky to begin with) quality level of the Alex Cross series continues the precipitous decline as seen in Along Came a Spider, who knows how much longer it will last.

RATING: ** (out of *****)


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