Morgan Freeman and Monica Potter in Along Came a SpiderALONG CAME A SPIDER

Here's a frightening thought: Are today's filmgoing audiences being programmed to expect less from movies? Because I'm afraid it might be happening to me.

A few years ago, there's probably no way I would have recommended the thriller Along Came a Spider. It features the predictable prelude where the partner of the film's authority figure gets killed (in a sequence featuring really poor computer-generated special effects), sending our hero into a funk; the plotting is almost insanely contrived and convoluted; and it ends with what might be the most predictable - and, personally, my least favorite - action-thriller climax possible: Our hero has to log on to the villain's computer to solve the film's mystery but is blocked by a secret password, which - abracadabra! - he guesses on his first try. (Somewhere, the British standup-comic Eddie Izzard, who does a hysterical routine on this cliché in his performance piece Glorious, is smiling.)

And yet, the movie worked for me. Director Lee Tamahori, who made the marvelously underrated thriller The Edge, has an unerring sense of pace, which helps the film glide over its more ridiculous elements, and it features a topnotch cast of actors who might or might not turn out to be creeps. Most wonderful of all, the movie has Morgan Freeman reprising his role as Detective Alex Cross (whom Freeman portrayed in 1997's far inferior Kiss the Girls), and Along Came a Spider is a fine argument for his being the best thing to ever happen to a silly action-thriller - his astonishing blend of dignity, authority, and concentration gives the film more weight than it deserves; even in a mostly hack work like this, Freeman gives a master class in the art of screen acting.

In this adaptation of the Jay Patterson novel (which, chronologically, actually precedes Kiss the Girls, in case you were wondering where Ashley Judd was), Freeman's Alex Cross teams up with FBI agent Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter) to rescue a senator's daughter (Mika Boorem) from her madman kidnapper (Michael Wincott), only to find that the kidnapping might be a smoke-screen to keep them from solving a much bigger crime, with far more evil parties involved. The movie's biggest failings are technological; this is one of those thrillers where the bad guy appears to have access to unlimited funds (the kidnapper's houseboat features about a zillion dollars worth of Best Buy items), where the cops' computers pull off miracles of surveillance with just a few keystrokes, and where even 10-year-old kids are Mensa-level hackers. There's not a scene in Along Came a Spider that works on a realistic level; thank goodness we gave up looking for realism in Hollywood flicks ages ago.

This thriller can be enjoyed enormously on its own ridiculous terms, if you shut off your brain and ignore every logical thought that enters it. You can have a lot of fun with the film's cast of snarky character actors - Wincott, with his sandpaper-rough voice, is an inspired sicko, and familiar performers like Potter, Jay O. Sanders, Dylan Baker, Penelope Ann Miller, and Michael Moriarty show up, keeping you guessing about their true motives and place in the story - and from young Mika Boorem, terrifically natural and appealing. Tamahori stages numerous scenes - especially the young girl's aborted escape attempt and a thrilling, though fundamentally pointless, sequence of Cross racing from pay phone to pay phone all across town - with great energy. And of course, there's Morgan Freeman himself, who, at age 63, is as complex and fascinating to watch as ever. It's an amazing thing about Mr. Freeman - he immediately ups the quality ante on every film he makes and completely fleshes out roles that are lucky to have even two dimensions. His performances in crap films are better than most of the work that wins Oscars.

Several years ago, even Freeman's greatness and Tamahori's pinache wouldn't be enough to make this miasma of thriller clichés worthwhile. But given the general crumminess of current Hollywood output, Along Came a Spider (a terrific thriller title, by the way) is not only bearable, but perhaps your best bet at cinematic enjoyment this spring; that probably says more about our choices than it does about Along Came a Spider itself, but hey, these days we'll take our entertainment where we can get it.


(clockwise from top left) Carla Gugino, Antonio Banderas, Alexa Vega, and Daryl Sabata in Spy KidsSPY KIDS

Robert Rodriguez's family action flick Spy Kids is all special effects and practically no story, which might be enough, in our current movie climate, to turn it into a sort of classic. In this era where nearly every prepubescent has seen the R-rated The Matrix at least twice, and the unbelievably dopey Star Wars follow-up The Phantom Menace is considered a work of genius by the 13-and-under set, it shouldn't be surprising that Spy Kids is a big hit; visually busy emptiness seems to be the new standard of excellence for today's youth. In fairness, though, the film is quite a bit better than those two blockbusters. It tells the tale of two youngsters (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) who discover that their parents (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino) are actually secret agents, and who then have to save them from the clutches of an evil mastermind (Alan Cumming) through the use of far-out gadgets and weaponry, and the movie generates more than a few chuckles by having the kids not know exactly how these inventions work. (It's a happy surprise that both Varga and Sabara prove to be delightful physical comedians.)

Writer-director Rodriguez keeps his scenes moving at a peppy clip, his work with the kids is outstanding, and the visual effects have a gee-whiz infectiousness; the goofier they look, the more you smile. So does it much matter that there doesn't appear to be anything at stake in the movie (the parents' kidnapping is treated an a minor inconvenience), that there's no narrative pull, or that Alan Cumming gives his umpteenth performance as a fey, giggly sprite? Probably not. Like The Matrix and, to a far lesser extent, The Phantom Menace, Rodriguez's work has enough visual invention to make up for other failings; today's young movie audiences are hungry for a hit, and they could certainly choose a lot worse than Spy Kids.

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