Coming after The Silence of the Lambs and Seven, this thriller about a collaboration between two serial killers feels like a pale attempt to cash in on the success of those earlier, better films. That's a pity, because this film certainly has its strengths--particularly in the central performances of Morgan Freeman as a forensic detective and Ashley Judd as a would-be victim who escaped from one of the killers. Director Gary Fleder demonstrates visual flair and maintains an involving undercurrent of tension, but as this adaptation of James Patterson's novel approaches its climax, familiar elements combine to form a chronic case of thriller déjà vu. It's altogether competent filmmaking in the service of a moribund story of competing psychopaths, and by the time the serial killers reach the home stretch of their twisted contest, the movie's dangerously close to Freddy Kruger territory, with a finale that could've been borrowed from any dozen similar thrillers. --Jeff Shannon
Along Came a Spider
After an obligatory prologue in which its detective hero suffers a tragic professional setback, Along Came a Spider sets about its business of luring the viewer into its nefarious plot, relying on the magician's technique of misdirection to reveal a double-whammy surprise. The clever, late-coming plot twist is a bit too mechanical but effectively unexpected, making this a satisfying prequel to the hit thriller Kiss the Girls--based on the first of James Patterson's Alex Cross detective novels--and a welcomed addition to a promising movie franchise. It's no better or worse than a good vintage episode of Peter Falk's Columbo, adhering closely to the mystery-thriller's time-honored traditions, but with Morgan Freeman settling comfortably into his role as seasoned sleuth Alex Cross, familiar formula is given fresh vitality.
When a senator's daughter is kidnapped from her high-security private school, the kidnapper (nicely played by the underrated Michael Wincott) draws Cross into the case, knowing that the psychologist-detective's involvement will bring high-profile publicity. Cross partners with the Secret Service agent (Monica Potter) who botched her assignment, but wait... the movie's got a rabbit in its hat... and that rabbit has an ace up its sleeve... and director Lee Tamahori (who brought similar intensity to The Edge) handles the sleight-of-hand with slick precision, dispensing just enough information to keep the viewer off guard without resorting to cheap manipulation. Don't look for much depth of character here, but Along Came a Spider is well served by everyone involved. It's the movie equivalent of a bestseller you'd impulsively buy at the grocery-store checkout, and on those terms it succeeds. --Jeff Shannon
Young Libby Parsons (Ashley Judd) is happy as a clam, and why not? She's got a loving, successful husband (Bruce Greenwood), an adorable son, and an island home to die for. One morning, after a romantic sailing expedition with her husband, Libby finds herself covered in blood. Her husband's missing, the boat resembles a murder scene, and there's a knife on the deck. One might stop right there and call for help; Libby, however, takes matters--or, more specifically, the knife--into her own hands, and the moment she does, there's the Coast Guard. Faster than you can say frame-up, Libby's been charged with murder and jailed, with her young son stripped from her custody. It's all cut-and-dried, except for one thing: Libby's husband isn't dead, and she's about to track him down. And thanks to the Fifth Amendment's double jeopardy rule, she can't be charged twice for his murder.
Double Jeopardy has a singularly seductive revenge premise and, in Judd, one of the most seductive leading ladies to grace the silver screen in recent years. So then why does this thriller feel like it came from the bottom of the Lifetime television movie barrel? Instead of taking a gritty, hard-boiled approach, the film plays up all of Libby's mushy emotions--tellingly, the director here is Bruce Beresford, whose best film, Driving Miss Daisy, is as far from thriller territory as you can get. No matter how stoically or deviously Judd plays her, Libby comes across as a soccer mom with a slight taste for blood. Only in a few scenes, specifically when she tracks her wily husband to his new identity in New Orleans, does Judd get to strut her stuff, stealing an evening gown and crashing his charity auction. Most of the time, though, this thriller offers only a smattering of suspense. Well, at least like Libby, the filmmakers can't be condemned twice for the same crime. With Tommy Lee Jones duplicating his Fugitive role, as Libby's conscientious parole officer. --Mark Englehart