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Review: Spiral Myopically Rips a Familiar Page from the Book of Saw

Spiral seems primed to explore the present-day fight against police brutality, but it never lives up to that promise.

1.5
Spiral
Photo: Lionsgate

When news broke in 2019 that Chris Rock was spearheading a new Saw film, many wondered just what the comedy legend would bring to the franchise. In what quickly became an apocryphal story, Rock, during a chance encounter with the Lionsgate top brass at a mutual friend’s wedding, had spun a “fantastic vision” (to quote the studio’s chairman, Joe Drake) that “reimagined” the world so viscerally brought to grubby life by director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell in 2004. Based on Rock’s original story as scripted by Jigsaw writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger, the feature was dubbed Spiral: From the Book of Saw, an alluringly enigmatic title for this new twist on the sickest series of the aughts. Now that the film is here, fans will be champing at the bit to see just what Rock brought to the table that couldn’t be ignored. Turns out, the answer is not much.

Rock stars as Zeke Banks, a police detective who’s had a contentious relationship with his precinct ever since he helped put away his own partner for an attempted coverup. Though Captain Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols) does what she can to keep the unpredictable Banks in line, his motormouth and frequent outbursts don’t endear him to his fellow detectives, a problem further exacerbated by the legacy of his father (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s long retired from the force. When Banks is assigned a rookie partner, William Schenk (Max Minghella), in the hope that it might teach him a lesson, the two take charge of a grisly murder investigation that leads them in hot pursuit of a killer who operates eerily like John Kramer—the Jigsaw killer who once confronted people with their personal sins via some of the most complex and devious tortures ever devised—and is targeting members of the metropolitan police.

In case viewers were under the impression that Spiral would deviate too much from the Saw formula, director Darren Lynn Bousman disabuses the audience of that notion at double-quick with a suitably nasty opening set piece that shows off the series’s most quintessential visual flourishes: a juddering frame and the camera taking a 360-degree turn around a character in peril. It’s all too easy to hope that this is a throat-clearing of sorts, a violent overture to the supposed reinvention to follow, but the film doesn’t reset the template in any marked way.

In fact, Spiral somehow looks and feels more and more like its predecessors as it goes on. The cast is a major upgrade from the Donnie Wahlbergs and Costas Mandylors of Saw films past, but its two biggest assets, Rock and Jackson, are misused. The former’s comic stylings are weighed down with some conspicuously dated references (to Forrest Gump, Twilight, and The Wire) and the latter is given one lively scene before, essentially, being relegated to a prop.

For a spell, Bousman (director of Saw II, III, and IV) largely jettisons the pond-scum color palette that defined prior entries in the series and presents the action in a somewhat straightforward fashion. While previous Saw films oftentimes felt like they were stuck in an endless succession of bombed-out warehouses, Spiral is on the move: tripping from location to location as Banks and his colleagues close in on the copycat killer. But, eventually, Spiral leans into the series’s annoying reliance on flashback and convoluted and shrug-worthy plot twists.

The Saw series has always prominently featured cops but never focused so squarely on their dirty deeds as Spiral does. “I’m here to help reform the metro police,” the copycat killer threatens early on, and from that moment Spiral seems primed to explore the present-day fight against police brutality, but it never lives up to that promise. In a post-Get Out landscape, with a black creative in the driver’s seat, Spiral wastes a massive opportunity for commentary. Though it ends with some gruesome, charged imagery, it’s difficult to know whether the film is too gutless to really grapple with its real-world echoes or if Rock and the screenwriters stumble into it blindly, making Spiral not just a bore, but a myopic one.

Cast: Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, Dan Petronijevic, Richard Zeppieri, Patrick McManus, Edie Inksetter Director: Darren Lynn Bousman Screenwriter: Josh Stolberg, Peter Goldfinger Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2021 Buy: Video

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