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‘Spiral’ spins its wheels

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Sure, I’ll ask the question: did we really need another “Saw” movie?

It shouldn’t be a surprise, really – we live in a world of sequels and reboots and franchises, and with the horror genre being one of the few generally reliable box office draws, it makes sense that we’d see a horror film or three kicking off what appears to be a wider reopening of movie theaters.

But the truth is that while these movies have been undeniable commercial successes – even the “Jigsaw” reboot from a couple of years ago did nine figures at the box office – the transgressive nature of the earlier installments has definitely been backlined in favor of more and gorier action. So it was interesting to see the latest incarnation at least make the effort to try and say something beyond “Look how gross this is!”

“Spiral: From the Book of Saw” is effectively the first spinoff from the series. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (his fourth go at the series) from a script by Josh Stoolberg and Peter Goldfinger, the film adds some unanticipated star power with star Chris Rock (who also executive produced) and tries to use its still-effective gory torture devices to say something about the wider world – in this case, police corruption and by extension systemic racism.

No, you’re not going to get a lot of nuanced commentary from a “Saw” movie – no one is showing up to one of these to get a lecture on world affairs; they’re here to see people die in horrible ways – but at least it allows the film to feel like it’s about something, rather than just an excuse for inventive torture devices.

But the truth is that while the filmmakers seem well-intentioned, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. While there are some solid performances here – Rock in particular is quite good – the story is scattered and haphazard, with questionable decisions regarding the pacing. The result is a horror movie with plenty of gore that is never fully able to articulate what it wants to convey.

(Note: I also learned that my tolerance for gore has been significantly lessened by my film watching of the last year. I used to review this type of film more regularly, but it has been a while – long enough that the ick factor crept up on me. Suffice it to say, there’s some intense stuff here.)

Rock plays Zeke Banks, a homicide detective. He’s a pariah within the department due to the fact that years ago, he reported his then-partner for being dirty. He’s got a long history with policing – his dad Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson, “The Banker”) was a longtime chief in the department; Marcus’s longtime colleague Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols, TV’s “Riverdale” is now captain.

After one of their fellow officers is killed in the subway tunnels, it becomes clear that they may be dealing with a copycat of the legendary Jigsaw Killer. Zeke is partnered with William Schenck (Max Minghella, TV’s “The Handmaid’s Tale), an idealistic rookie detective, against Zeke’s wishes. The two quickly find themselves drawn into an ever-widening web of horror as this new killer – sporting a pig mask – continues targeting police officers that have, in some way, been corrupt.

For whatever reason, Zeke has been chosen by the unknown killer as the point person, the target recipient of the many twisted clues to the game being played. But as he and his new partner follow these clues, many dangers – old and new alike – present themselves. Zeke must fight not only this mysterious menace, but so many of his fellow officers who view him as untrustworthy as a result of his morally correct actions that nevertheless render him disloyal in their eyes.

As the body count mounts, Zeke must confront the reality of his circumstances and determine just how far he is willing to go to prevent bloodshed while still maintaining the honor he believes the badge still holds.

The world has changed a lot since that first “Saw” movie hit screens in 2003. What was once transgressive and viscerally impactful has become almost passe – the gory violence that came part and parcel with horror films has largely fallen by the wayside, supplanted by, among other things, the outgrowth of “elevated” horror offerings in recent years.

And yet – there’s something to be said for sticking with what you know, and what “Saw” knows is horrifically intricate Rube Goldbergian torture devices intended to punish the immoral among us. In that respect, well … the more things change, the more they stay the same.

What sets “Spiral” apart is its flipping of the usual formula. Instead of placing the focus on the gory set pieces and fitting the narrative in around them, this new film allows the narrative to take center stage and uses the torture horror as accent rather than foundation.

It’s a good thought; unfortunately, the story isn’t strong enough to hold up its end of the bargain. There are a lot of unanswered questions about the dynamics at play throughout the film, mostly surrounding Zeke and his relationships. A lot of what we see doesn’t really make a lot of sense, which undercuts the effectiveness of that narrative flip, as well as the effort to present that underlying message.

Chris Rock is not who you’d expect to be in this kind of movie, but he acquits himself nicely. It’s a very different performance than what we’ve come to expect from him (though he can’t help but get a joke or two in here and there). Still, he plays it mostly straight – and it works. Minghella is a nice pairing with Rock, blending optimism with a sense of duty. Jackson mostly coasts on his charisma, but he’s not in the film enough for it to be a problem. The rest of the cast kind of blends together – it’s basically a lot of cops being jerks.

“Spiral” is a good faith effort at expanding the “Saw” cinematic universe. And the desire to do so is understandable – this is a franchise with a ready-made audience, after all. Unfortunately, the realization of that expansion isn’t quite up to snuff.

[2 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 17 May 2021 07:32

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