Best-selling novelist James Patterson's first film outing, Kiss the Girls (1997), was a popular if not critical success. Along Came A Spider, starring and exec produced by Morgan Freeman, offers similar chills and thrills with the return of Alex Cross, a Washington, DC police forensic psychologist. This time around, he is chasing a homicidal kidnapper, Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott), who has abducted Megan Rose (Mika Boorem), daughter of Senator Hank Rose (Michael Moriarty) and wife Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller). If they only knew how clever and resourceful their daughter is, they might very well develop sympathy for her kidnapper.

Does anyone remember O. Henry's The Ransom of Red Chief? Unfortunately, the rest of the world is not quite as prepared as Megan to deal with a diabolical kidnapper. Luckily for Cross, keeping in touch with Soneji is not that difficult, as he has a compulsion to phone the detective from time to time, not to mention leaving a computer trail a mile wide. And yet, in spite of all the communication, Soneji remains elusive. Joining Cross in his hunt is Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), a pretty, blonde Secret Service agent, annoyingly ingenuous, who had been assigned the task of protecting Megan. Jezzie feels just awful about letting her charge get stolen. Since Cross is still mourning the loss of a partner whose death he feels he ought to have prevented, Flannigan's assistance seems emotionally, as well as logically, made to order.

Nevertheless, it appears the only way they are going to catch Soneji is if he decides to surrender. No problem! While Cross and Flannigan are conferring, Soneji obligingly enters with stun gun in hand, knocking out Jezzie and getting the drop on Cross. Just when it looks like Soneji's going to grab Jezzie as well as Megan, Flannigan stabs him while Cross pumps a rifle bullet through his chest. But the film is far from over. Where is Megan--and is she still alive? Was it really a good idea to dispatch the kidnapper before discovering her whereabouts? Are there other villains involved?

While character is repeatedly sacrificed for plot in Marc Moss' rather elliptical, twisting screenplay, there is no getting around Freeman's easy charm and nonchalant authority in the role of Cross. He is invariably splendid-looking in tweed suits--very appropriate attire for the author of several books on the criminal mind. Indeed, it is a bit surprising that he is not being chased by teams of TV network executives seeking yet another true-crime expert for prime time. Like all good heroes, Cross remains eternally unflappable, and since even the bad guys respect him, it is difficult to imagine him ever being defeated. Alas, his invulnerability does reduce the suspense quotient, even in a film packed with sharpshooters. Still, give exec producer Freeman credit for hiring one of the best directors around, for it is Lee Tamahori's taut pacing--not to mention Neil Travis' exceptional editing--that gives the film its one-two punch, and that may be just enough for a box-office knockout.

--Bruce Feld