Morgan Freeman, Monica Potter, Michael Wincott, Penelope Ann Miller

The young daughter of a senator has been kidnapped from her elite private school in Washington, D.C. The kidnapper (Wincott), a publicity-seeking psycho who has spent years furtively planning his crime, deposits one of the girl's shoes in the mailbox of Alex Cross (Freeman), a top detective on the D.C. police force who is also a psychologist and bestselling author of books exploring the criminal mind. Does Cross know, asks the child's tearful mother (Miller), why the kidnapper chose to contact him?

"No, ma'am," he tells her, adding with quiet determination, "Not yet."

As Cross solves the "yet" in Along Came a Spider, a perfunctory thriller boasting a couple of screechingly sharp plot turns, he faces a frustratingly wily opponent who is often a step ahead of him—though not always of the audience. Spider is Freeman's second outing as Cross, following 1997's excessively lurid Kiss the Girls. (Both movies are based on bestselling novels by James Patterson.) While it is always a pleasure to watch this accomplished actor, whose natural gravitas perfectly meshes with that of the cerebral cop, Freeman doesn't have much to do here besides alternate between looks of deep concern and profound thought and race around Washington as if he were training for the 100-meter dash in the Senior Olympics.

The problem with Spider, as directed by Lee Tamahori (The Edge), is that it's heavy on plot (yet riddled with plot holes) and light on character development. The kidnapper, the female Secret Service agent (Potter) who teams up with Cross, the worried parents of the abducted child and even Cross himself are all as sketchily drawn as a preschooler's crayoned stick figures. Take, for example, an early scene in which Cross is seen at home with a woman who lovingly urges him to stop moping over a botched sting operation: It's unclear whether she's his wife, girlfriend or daughter, and we never see her or hear about her again. Potter, though flintier here than in previous roles, is merely adequate. (R)

Bottom Line: Fails to weave an enticing web

Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Ray Liotta. Rachel Griffiths, Jordi Molla

Blow, the movie, is a lot like cocaine, the drug for which it is named. This true story about the rise and fall of George Jung, a leading cocaine dealer in the 1970s, is a rush at first, but once the high wears off, it's a downer.

Depp, his locks growing longer and blonder with every scene, portrays Jung as a none too bright guy who, upon finishing high school in 1968, knows only that he doesn't want to spend his life as a blue-collar drone. He heads for L.A., where he drifts into dealing, starting with peddling marijuana joints on the beach. Many kilos and a jail sentence later, he hooks up with Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and the two men set to work making cocaine America's buzz of choice during the disco era. Jung becomes wildly rich, weds a beautiful wife (Cruz, in what is barely a cameo) and has a daughter. But he discovers that, inevitably, what goes up must come down.

Director Ted Demme (Life) set out to make an ambitious, cautionary epic about the intersection between the drug trade and the American Dream, but Jung proves neither complex nor charismatic enough to warrant such treatment. (R)

Bottom Line: Can't sustain initial high

Jared Harris, Xia Yu, Xing Yufei

When Englishman Raymond Wallace (Harris) arrives in China in 1902 lugging a motion picture camera and projector, he's hoping to make his fortune showing some of the earliest film footage ever shot, what he calls "shadow magic." He has trouble attracting patrons until a Chinese man (Yu), a photographer's assistant who is fascinated by these newfangled Western inventions, offers to help. Together the two men not only successfully exhibit the short films (vintage footage of parades, babies being fed, an exotic dancer spinning, gymnasts forming a human pyramid) but head out into the crowded streets of Peking with a camera to capture for posterity a way of life that will soon disappear.

Shadow Magic, directed and co-written by Ann Hu (who was raised in China but came to the U.S. in 1979 for college and stayed), is a slight, loving valentine to the power of cinema. Both Harris and Yu give heartfelt performances. But best of all are the scenes showing Chinese citizens delightedly watching movies for the first time, ducking in terror as a train comes directly at them on the screen and then laughing as one upon realizing they've been had. Less effective is a romantic subplot between the photographer's assistant, who is low-born, and a nobleman's daughter (Xing Yufei). (PG)

Bottom Line: Flickeringly fine

Rachel Weisz, Susan Lynch

In this black comedy, our heroines end up black-and-blue but a darn sight healthier than the men they either beat up or do away with. Dorothy (Lynch) and Petula (Weisz), residents of Glasgow, are Scotland's Thelma and Louise. When their low-life beaus get rough, the gals get rough right back, which is amusing for a while, particularly when a corrupt cop starts snooping about and demands a payoff. But then it becomes overkill, literally. The talented Lynch and Weisz give such spirited performances, they could tour as a tag team for the WWF. (R)

Bottom Line: Strong Scotch

Gael Garcia Bernal, Emilio Echevarria

This Mexican movie, just beaten out for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, starts off with a literal bang. A Mexico City car crash slams together—then, over the next 2 ½ hours, disentangles—three stories in which dogs are key players. There's a boy whose Rottweiler has been shot, a homeless man surrounded by mongrels, and a model with a walking powder puff of a pooch. As far as moviemaking goes, Amores Perros (loose translation: "Love's a bitch") is a dazzler, fluid and sharp. At heart, though, it's softly sentimental. By the end the homeless man, who turns out to be an occasional hit man, is leaving a weepy phone message for the daughter he abandoned. (R)

Bottom Line: More bark than bite

>Heartbreakers Breezy, chuckle-filled comedy follows a mother-daughter team of con artists (Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt). (PG-13)

Memento A must-see. Intriguing thriller in which the plot runs backward and the hero (Guy Pearce) suffers from short-term memory loss. Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano costar. (R)

Spy Kids James Bond, watch your back. Two kids must rescue their ex-spy parents, who've been kidnapped. (PG)

The Tailor of Panama Smart, character-driven thriller based on a John le Carré novel features sparkling turns by Geoffrey Rush and Pierce Brosnan. (R)

Tomcats Gross-out jokes rule in a dumb comedy aimed squarely at 16-year-old boys. Jerry O'Connell stars. (R)

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto.