Along Came A Spider

Confession: I am an Alex Cross junkie. The character created by author James Patterson in the 1992 suspense novel Along Came a Spider is an African-American homicide detective, with a doctorate in psychology, who works and lives in the ghettos of Washington, D.C., where he chases the kinkiest collection of serial killers in modern crime fiction. Cross is the protagonist in several Patterson best sellers, including Kiss the Girls, Pop Goes the Weasel and Roses Are Red. Sometimes Patterson writes books, like the current 1st to Die, in which Cross does not appear. This drives me nuts. Don't do it again, do you hear me, Patterson? I know my Cross habit is indefensible — Patterson writes plots to plow through, not to savor. But Cross is the real deal, a character who matters.

Then Hollywood nabbed him. It should have been good news in 1997 when Kiss the Girls — the second Patterson novel featuring Cross — hit the screen. Morgan Freeman, then sixty, was too old to play the thirty-eight-year-old Cross. But the man was and is cool; also a great actor, world-class, capable of getting past age barriers. But the movie, crudely directed by Gary Fleder (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead), wasn't up to Freeman or Patterson. It dodged characterization in favor of suspense mechanics about a killer who held women captive in a private harem. Ashley Judd played one of the captives with spark. Yet Freeman wasn't asked to do much more than stand there and watch the plot go by. The movie never told us about his late wife, Maria, who had died in a drive-by shooting three years before. We never saw Cross at home with his two children — Damon, 6, and Janelle, 4 — and his smartass grandma, called Nana Mama in the books, who kept his house in order and his head on straight. No sign either of John Sampson, his six-foot-nine partner in crime and verbal sparring. As for sex, forget it. The white villain got to kiss the girls but this black detective didn't, even with a receptive Judd around as temptation. I shrugged off the film's failure, figuring the movie jerks would get it right next time.

Well, next time is here, and Hollywood has screwed up again, big-time. Along Came a Spider, being the first book in the series, seemed a snug fit to fill in the details the first movie missed. So I waited. But director Lee Tamahori (Mulholland Falls) is just as plot-obsessed as his predecessor. The villain, Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott is at his creepiest, which is saying something), using makeup to disguise himself as a teacher, kidnaps a child, the daughter of a senator (Michael Moriarty), from her private school. Cross (again played by Freeman) is called in to investigate, along with Jezzie Flanagan (Monica Potter), a Secret Service agent assigned to the detail of protecting the politician's kid from just such a calamity. There is an immediate attraction between Cross and Jezzie, a leggy, blond twenty-something. At least there was an attraction in the book. You'd never know it from the movie. For starters, Potter is a problem. If she wants a career, she is going to have to give back the DNA she stole from Julia Roberts. In every movie (Patch Adams, Head Over Heels), but in this one especially, Potter walks, talks and gesticulates like a Julia clone. I'm surprised that Cross, a savvy guy, didn't call her on it. In fact, Cross hardly looks Jezzie's way. The man is all business, never monkey business. In the book, Jezzie relates deeply to Cross. He takes her home to meet his kids and Nana Mama and plays her the blues on his porch piano. Hallmark pap? Nah. It's Cross' life as a family man that motivates him to be a cop, to nab the bad guys, especially those who prey on children. The film leaves all that out.

And the sex? Not a hint. Patterson offers a terrific parody of detective pulp when Cross and Jezzie get it on in the novel: "Jezzie's hands played with the buttons of my trousers, then the zipper. Our mouths came together, lightly at first, then hard." Later, they both reach orgasm in a bathtub, with Jezzie on top and Cross' head underwater with "more water on the floor than in the bathtub."

Um, so what's the excuse for dumping such a hot movie moment? Is Freeman, now sixty-three, too old to cut it? Would Denzel Washington, 46, have been better? Or Samuel L. Jackson, 52? Yeah, right. Remember the love scenes Jackson had in Shaft or Washington in Remember the Titans? None. The age cop-out is just that — Sean Connery was pushing seventy when he romanced Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment. The problem is the same-old same-old: Hollywood racism. Alex Cross has been neutered on film, deprived of his sexuality, his family, his friends and all traces of a social context except as a smart black cop in service to a white power elite. And why? Ask the studio heads, who think audiences want it so. Ask Patterson, who sold his character into Hollywood chains. Ask Freeman, who is credited as the film's executive producer. Ask yourself how Cross can be a fully dimensional character on the page and a bloodless cipher on the screen. Demand answers. Alex Cross would.

From The Archives Issue 267: June 15, 1978