Author James Patterson seems to have a thing for nursery rhymes. The first book of his to be made into a movie was Kiss The Girls (as in "Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie..."), while the next one up is Along Came A Spider (as in "Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet..."). Elsewhere on his shelves are Pop Goes The Weasel, Jack & Jill and Cat&Mouse, all of which feature Washington DC police psychologist Alex Cross, and all of which play the child-like innocence implied by their titles against darker themes of murder and general mayhem.
But, despite his uncanny ability to profile the bad guys from a smattering of clues, Cross ain't Clarice Starling and Along Came A Spider ain't The Silence Of The Lambs. Nor, even with Morgan Freeman in the lead role and a manipulative villain in the wings, is it Se7en. This is a Hollywood psycho-thriller decked out in comfortable clothes, the kind that makes your pulse race for a couple of hours before tucking you up in bed and promising there'll be no nightmares to disturb your sleep.
The casting keeps up this audience-friendly approach. Freeman brings dignity and weight to the role of Alex Cross, but not a great sense of character, despite an opening titles set-piece that's supposed to throw a shadow of guilt across his brow for the rest of the movie. Monica Potter, as the Secret Service agent who lets the kidnapped girl out of her grasp, aims for Julia Roberts-lite rather than the dramatic depth of, say, Jodie Foster or Julianne Moore. And the characters who surround them function only to drive the machinations of the plot, not to draw attention to themselves or hint at any life outside of their brief moments on screen.
With this in mind, Along Came A Spider works perfectly well as a stand-alone movie rather than as a standard sequel, as it has no story or character baggage carried over from Kiss The Girls. This is clearly because the latter movie was the second novel in Patterson's series, while Along Came A Spider introduced Alex Cross to the reading public. Still, would it have hurt too much to move the chronology around in order to offer at least some form of continuity?
Director Lee Tamahori hit hard with his Maori drama Once Were Warriors, before softening up in Hollywood with the neo-noir Mulholland Falls and the Anthony Hopkins vs bear movie The Edge. Here, though, he sets a course for safer ground than Gary Fleder did with Kiss The Girls. Where its more sombre predecessor at least touched on Thomas Harris territory and was bolstered by a convincingly tough performance from Catwoman-to-be Ashley Judd, Along Came A Spider is happy to be a well-polished puzzle that dishes out enough clues to keep viewers engaged while holding back a couple of well-delivered surprises. You get your money's worth, but not much more.
A mainstream thriller for those who don't want to go as dark as Se7en or as gory as Hannibal, Along Came A Spider takes a no-frills approach to multiplex entertainment. The result is solid and entertaining, but not flashy or unique.