Before getting into the new film “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” I have a confession: I’ve never really connected with the “Saw” series. I haven’t seen all of the movies. I don’t fully understand the allure. The franchise’s success is a puzzle I just can’t solve. I say all of that to stress that I’m not well versed in the Saw-verse (is that a term?) and that I don’t come to this ninth installment (yes…nine!) with any sense of attachment. Does that help or hurt my thoughts on “Spiral”? Considering the sometimes hard to read pulse of fandom, I’ll let you determine for yourself.
I will say the trailers for “Spiral” caught my attention in a way “Saw” movies never have before. They teased a new direction for the franchise – going the route of a gritty and grisly crime thriller in the vein of Fincher’s “Se7en”. Despite hesitations over casting Chris Rock as the film’s lead, I was still interested to see if “Spiral” could pull the series away from its tortuous central conceit and onto something fresh and inspired. To the film’s credit it does try something (kinda) new, but suffice it to say “Spiral” is certainly no “Se7en”.
In case die-hard franchise fans were worried, the movie kicks off with a gruesome Saw-like opening, assuring the audience that there would be no shortage of blood and viscera. From there it shifts to Rock’s character, Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks. He’s a homicide detective living in the shadow of his father and former police chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson). Zeke is generally hated by the other officers in his precinct who have labeled him a rat for turning in a dirty cop. Unable to trust the other detectives, he often goes at it alone much to the chagrin of his shouty and perpetually angry Captain (Marisol Nichols).
As punishment for failing to report his undercover work, Zeke is assigned a rookie partner Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella). You’ve seen it before – the sour and cynical veteran paired with the young enthusiastic family man who carries around a picture of his wife and newborn baby and can’t wait to get out on the streets. He doesn’t have to wait long. Soon the two are neck-deep in a murder case that has all the markings of a Jigsaw copycat. But this is a psychopath with a social conscious and on a not-so-subtle crusade for police reform.
“Saw” alum Darren Lynn Bousman directs from a script written by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger. In one sense their movie does precisely what it intends to do – it manages to differentiate itself from its predecessors by offering a new spin on the series. But on the other hand, “Spiral” does little to distinguish itself from countless other better made police thrillers. The film is overflowing with hard-boiled cop movie tropes and head-scratching details and oversights that you can’t help but laugh at. It does maintain a grim and nasty tone, so much so that its few vain attempts at humor land with a thud. But tone alone can’t immerse you into a world. You can see “Spiral” working hard to pull in its audience much like Fincher did with “Se7en”. Sadly it never happens.
And then you have Chris Rock . The 56-year-old comedian goes for it and gives it his all, yet I was never convinced I was seeing his character. Instead I was always seeing Chris Rock playing Zeke. From his confused squinty expressions to his constant yelling, comedic traits he’s always been known for end up seeping into his performance. And he’s not helped by the relentless f-bomb saturated dialogue which calls back to so many of his earlier stand-up routines. In his defense, there are a handful of welcomed moments where he dials down the volume and we see flashes of the dramatic turn he’s going for. But the character and the story need considerably more than he can ultimately give.
At times “Spiral” can be gnarly, brutal, and borderline sadistic which is exactly what the “Saw” movies have always promised. Yet it barely feels like a “Saw” film. If not for the three or four signature torture contraptions scattered throughout you could easily dismiss this as just another bland and uninspired police procedural. It makes an effort to add some weight, but the ham-fisted social commentary and the not-so-big twist does little to help. So we’re left with something that feels kinda new for the long-running franchise, but deep down is nothing we haven’t seen before. “Spiral” opens in theaters tomorrow (May 14th).