Early on in the mystery “Along Came a Spider,” the bewildered mother of a kidnap victim asks Morgan Freeman reprising his role as famed profiler Alex Cross “Why are you here?”
“I don’t know,” he answers simply, but everyone knows why. As detective Cross, who has shed light into the most twisted recesses of criminal minds, his presence testifies to the grandiose visions of a kidnapper determined to hijack a place in the history books. “He wants to be appreciated,” Cross later observes. As for Freeman, he’s here to elevate what would otherwise be a commonplace thriller.
Freeman is worth a thousand transparent plot twists and annoying threads of inconsistencies just to watch him weave depth and sincerity into ordinary lines. “I take it you’ve done this before,” an agent asks him during a stakeout. He doesn’t stop looking out a rain-soaked car window as he exhales, “Oh, yes.” That “Oh, yes” alone wraps up an image of a thousand rainy nights sitting patiently like a spider in a web. As in so many of his films, Freeman invests his role with a hybrid American Zen mastery, delivering lines like koans (“You do what you are”) and encouraging everyone around him to be his equal.
It almost works in “Along Came a Spider,” based on the book by James Patterson. In this prequel to “Kiss the Girls,” Ashley Judd’s Dr. Kate McTiernan entanglement with tandem serial killers has not yet materialized. Instead, Cross is concerned with a much younger woman, namely Megan Rose (Mika Boorem), daughter of an obscure senator, Hank Rose (Michael Moriarty), and his wife, Lauren (Penelope Ann Miller).
The invitation to the crime comes eight months after a sting operation gone horribly wrong. Feeling guilty over his partner’s death, Cross hibernates from life, threading together miniature sailing vessels, until a phone call from the kidnapper and a girl’s hightop delivered to his tin mailbox pull him back into the criminal world.
Despite the watchful surveillance of Secret Service agents, including head Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), Rose is taken during the lunch hour from the very exclusive Cathedral School, where daughters of American legislators exchange e-mail flirtations with sons of Russian presidents. The suspense doesn’t lie in who the kidnapper is you see Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott) doing the deed but what he plans to do. “He didn’t just kidnap a little girl,” Cross says. “He made it into a game.”
Some of the usual trite subplots are avoided by direct confrontation. During the first meeting with the parents, federal investigator Ollie McArthur (Dylan Baker) dismisses Cross’s conjectures, calling him “damaged goods,” when the good senator’s wife interrupts: “Your agenda is what, to insult the man he (the kidnapper) called?” Her feisty display defuses the usual turf war, which even ends up in an apology the following morning (although McArthur seems a tad overly generous by offering Freeman the whole free range rather than just an olive branch).
Meanwhile, disgraced agent Flannigan, to make amends for her colossal lapse, determinedly hooks up with the city detective. Cross capitulates graciously. “If it’s a choice of having you as my partner or as my stalker,” he says, “of course, I’ll choose you as my partner.”
Students of the genre may not find too much complexity, but if you ignore the route and just let Freeman do the driving, you could enjoy the scenery along the way. By the way, while there are no “Driving Miss Daisy” allusions in the film, there is one about Freeman as a pitchman for literacy about three-quarters of the way through.
As the intelligent kidnapper Soneji, Wincott admirably dispatches the very complicated role of reconciling two conflicting personalities, one of which the audience has only glimpsed for a few minutes. Less convincing is his inevitable degeneration, but that fault lies more with the script and perhaps the sacrifice for plot twists. Also worth seeing is Boorem: Child kidnap victims in films are no longer as pliant as they used to be. While maybe not as much of a handful as Julia Hsu as kidnappee Han Soo Yung in “Rush Hour,” Boorem has an opportunity to demonstrate a lot of common-sense ingenuity.
Of the lot, Potter is the lightweight (are Secret Service agents allowed to get teary-eyed?). But really, if you’re not here for Freeman, you might as well back out of that turnstile and go home.