Serial killer Jigsaw is long dead but his lust for Rube Goldberg-like torture devices lives on in Spiral: From the Book of Saw, the ninth installment in the seemingly never-ending Saw series. But in many respects, Spiral feels like a sequel in name only. Hell, take that Book of Saw subtitle away and you have less of a Saw movie and more of a serial killer thriller that seems to be cribbing, badly, from Seven and its many knock-offs. Spiral has the unique distinction of featuring Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson, two of the biggest stars to ever grace this film series. But those hoping their star power will lend Spiral weight are in for a rude awakening.
Set in a city that seems to be both Philadelphia (based on shots of the skyline) and Toronto (based on everything else), Spiral opens with a wonderfully twisted death in which a captured cop is tasked with either ripping his own tongue out via a rusty-looking torture device or letting a train run him over. Neither are great options, but no matter – the cop gets to experience both, as he rips his tongue out just as a train turns him into mincemeat. It’s a grisly, darkly comedic way to kick things off, and it sets up Spiral to be something special – or at the very least, macabrely entertaining. But this opening might as well be a Jigsaw trap of its own, tricking us into making a fatal mistake. It’s all downhill from here.
No-nonsense cop Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock) is seemingly the only good cop on the force. He’s developed a reputation as a rat after he turned in his old partner for not just bending the law but full-on breaking it. Zeke did the right thing, but to all the other cops in the precinct, he’s a traitor. They shun him at every turn, and, in true Serpico style, they even ignored his calls for backup at one point – a decision that resulted in Zeke being shot. Cops are supposed to look out for each other, after all, and Zeke broke that sacred code and crossed that thin blue line. Further complicating matters is the fact that Zeke’s father Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson) is something of a supercop, envied by all.
Zeke and his fresh-faced new partner William (Max Minghella) are called to investigate the cop who got splattered by the train in the beginning, and the two quickly discover this was no accident. On top of that, the dead cop was a good friend of Zeke’s – or so he says. This friendship story is dropped almost as soon as it’s mentioned. Soon, more cops from the precinct are turning up dead in gruesome ways, and the killer sends taunting videos talking about how they want to make the police pay for their many transgressions. And oh yeah, there’s the occasional talk of Jigsaw to remind us that this is a Saw movie. “This guy really wants to be Jigsaw!” a cop says at one point. Sure. Whatever.
The most frustrating thing about Spiral is that there is a better, smarter movie lurking beneath all the nonsense here; all the quick cuts and speed ramping scenes; all the terrible dialogue that’s shouted at full volume. Spiral is ultimately a film about corrupt, and even murderous cops suddenly facing a reckoning, and that sort of material has the potential to be both subversive – for a Hollywood movie, at least – and timely. It could really push some buttons if done right. But Spiral is almost maddening in how little it seems to care about any of this. It simply wants to shed a lot of blood – and it does. Those who enter thirsting for gruesome gore will get that, and then some. But they won’t get much else, save for a series of unintentionally funny scenes that strain credulity.
There are even times when Spiral feels like a parody of a Saw film, but no one else seems to be in on the joke. Rock is woefully miscast here, alternating between either doing what sounds like a stand-up routine or shouting at the top of his lungs. He clearly has charisma, and he’s also clearly funny as hell – but you wouldn’t know that from watching him here. The script does him no favors by giving him extremely dated jokes about Forrest Gump (really?) and Twilight (again, really?). As for Jackson, he’s barely around, although he does get to show up in a flashback sporting a truly terrible fake mustache. He, too, yells a lot – but that’s to be expected, and he pulls it off better than Rock.
Spiral blunders through its central mystery without grace or style, or even much thought. Even the death traps are weirdly uninspired. One of them pulls a guy’s fingers off; another drips hot wax onto someone’s face. C’mon, Spiral – is that all you’ve got? It’s as if no one’s heart is really in this, and everyone is just going through the motions – save for the make-up effects team, who go all-out with as much blood and gore as they possibly can. I’m sure someone will argue that that’s good enough; that all they need to see is the red stuff and they’ll be happy. But a film – even a Saw film – should offer us a bit more than just buckets of guts. Poor old Jigsaw is probably rolling in his grave.
/Film Rating: 4.5 out of 10
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