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Mangled Web

Kiss the Girls, the first movie adapted from the James Patterson assembly line of Dr. Alex Cross novels, was a middling 1997 profit-turner that Paramount has presumptuously deemed franchise-worthy. (As much a lurid Ashley Judd exploitation thriller as a smudgy Silence of the Lambs facsimile, it has already generated a lucrative sequel of sorts for the studio: Double Jeopardy.) In Along Came a Spider, Morgan Freeman dutifully reprises the role of the grave, kindly D.C. detective/psychologist/bestselling author. After his partner is sacrificed in a guilt-establishing prologue, Cross retreats into a self-flagellating funk, emerging only when raspy sociopath Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott) calls to play cat and mouse.

Soneji, who has abducted the preadolescent daughter of a U.S. senator (he was the latex-mask-wearing computer teacher at her posh private school), suffers from a lack of motivation so acute it registers as parody. The film randomly conflates stock Hollywood explanations for criminal behavior: One minute Soneji's a conceptualist egomaniac paying homage to the Lindbergh kidnapping; the next he's the damaged, pathetic product of bad parenting. A blankly emphatic Monica Potter fills in for Judd, as the Secret Service agent who was on bodyguard duty when Soneji nabbed the brat, and has her own culpability issues to work through. The vacuous convolutions, hustled along by Jerry Goldsmith's windy score and Lee Tamahori's brisk, overpunctuated direction, are crowned by a disingenuous and colossally daft whiplash twist (presumably Patterson's) that only further perforates an already ragged plot. Freeman sustains the illusion of gravity throughout, but it's a thankless task to have to feign thoughtfulness in the face of utter incoherence.

 
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