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If all you know of James Patterson is that he’s the dork who’s made television commercials promoting his books (“That’s how 1st to Die begins,” Patterson gushes after reading a not-that-great opening sentence. “You won’t believe how it ends!”), you might be tempted to avoid Along Came a Spider, adapted from Patterson’s first novel. For this prequel to 1997’s Kiss the Girls, Morgan Freeman reprises his role as Dr. Alex Cross, detective extraordinaire. (Actually, he’s reprising the role he’s played in a number of movies: the world-weary, old-and-wise mentor who helps some new thing with a situation he’s seen many, many times before.) A jaw-dropping car crash in the opening sequence smacks you to attention—maybe this won’t be so bad after all—and explains why Cross is so doleful this time around: After his partner is killed in a sting operation gone bad, Cross falls into dispirited semiretirement. Meanwhile, a senator’s daughter under Secret Service protection is kidnapped by one of the faculty at a Washington, D.C., elementary school, and Cross is dragged into the case when the kidnapper contacts him and starts leaving clues. Cross partners with wide-eyed, please-teach-me! Special Agent Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), who was in charge of the school’s security and can’t forgive herself for messing up. Potter aces Flannigan’s woe-is-me schtick, though she sometimes injects a little too much dumb-blondeness into her laments (she is, after all, a special agent, not some baby sitter), and Freeman is comfortable and convincing as the old pro with all the answers. Although a few scenes border on self-parody—do we really need that cheesy music as Cross dashes to his mailbox for a clue?—the slick detective work and fast-and-furious plot twists in the second half are clever enough to make you forget about their sheer implausibility. —Tricia Olszewski