Grade: B

Morgan Freeman brings his customary air of quiet authority to his second turn as James Patterson’s Alex Cross, the Washington, D.C. detective and criminal profiler (the novel was actually the first in the series to feature the character, but it’s been made out of sequence), and the result is a suspenser that’s considerably better than its predecessor, 1997’s “Kiss the Girls.” That’s mostly because it’s directed with a much surer hand by Lee Tamahori, who secures a tauter, tighter atmosphere than Gary Fleder did and hides the plot holes far more adeptly. But the narrative is also preferable, not merely because it avoids the commonplace damsel-in-distress formula that afflicted the earlier picture (and at the time seemed far too indebted to “The Silence of the Lambs”) but because it pulls off a surprise in the final reel that might not be terribly credible but works nonetheless. “Along Came a Spider” has some of the same combination of slickness and convolution that made “Primal Fear” such trashy fun. It’s not quite as good as that, but it comes reasonably close.

The opening of “Spider” shows Cross losing a partner in an attempt to catch a serial killer, a tragedy that sends him off the job. He’s seduced back, however, by an arrogant kidnapper who’s seized the daughter of a U.S. senator from her posh prep school and, acquainted with Cross’ books, dares him to get involved. In little time our hero has teamed up with Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), a spunky secret service agent who was in charge of the school’s security and now is in deep trouble with her superiors. This is but the beginning of a maze-like plot which eventually involves the son of the Russian president who happens to be studying at the same school, and a scheme that involves villainy beyond what’s immediately apparent. One doesn’t want to give away too much in the case of a picture like this, but it’s clear that, if “Girls” and “Spider” are at all characteristic of his work, Patterson has a penchant for doubling and tripling up on his bad guys.

When one analyzes the script of “Along Came A Spider” in retrospect, it seems completely preposterous, with turns and coincidences and lucky guesses that will strain credulity to the breaking point. While you’re watching it, however, it’s quite gripping, because Tamahori shows considerable skill in maintaining tension and the cast is quite effective. Complementing Freeman’s understated but charismatic performance are good turns by Potter (a truly lovely actress) as Flannigan and a fairly creepy one by Michael Wincott as the kidnapper (even if his motivations, as revealed, seem patently absurd). In smaller parts, Michael Moriarity and Penelope Ann Miller are properly morose as the victim’s worried parents, and Dylan Baker avoids most of the cliches that would usually infect the role of the of the government agent put in charge of the investigation. Even the kids are good, especially Mika Boorem, who’s both engaging and believably bright playing the kidnapped girl.

All the technical credits are good–Matthew Leonetti’s cinematography is especially effective–but special mention should be made of the music by that old master, Jerry Goldsmith. This guy has been turning out exceptional scores for movies, good and bad, for more than forty years. The one he’s penned this time around is characteristic of his style, making use of the throbbing ostinatos he’s employed so effectively in the past, and you might not notice it too often; but it’s amazingly helpful in building suspense. It is, quite simply, a great film score. And if the same adjective can’t also be applied to the picture it supports, “Along Came a Spider” is nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable piece of hokum, a spiffily-directed nail-biter with twists that should make you smile even when they’re totally implausible.