Review: Spiral stars Chris Rock, but it’s the same old Saw

Samuel L. Jackson shows up as well, but the ninth film in the torture-porn franchise is just here to play the hits


SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW (Darren Lynn Bousman). 91 minutes. Now available as a premium VOD rental on all digital platforms. Rating: NN


Seven years after the last Saw movie, and a full 17 since Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell woke up in that grotty basement facing a stark life-or-death choice, Lionsgate reboots its profitable but creatively stagnant horror franchise… and now it’s a police procedural. Starring Chris Rock. That pitch alone makes Spiral stand out from the eight films that preceded it, though it isn’t daring enough to truly walk a new path.

Jigsaw is long dead, but someone is using his M.O. to punish dirty cops, putting them in brutal torture traps keyed to their specific moral failures. (A detective who lied on the stand must choose between tearing out his own tongue and being pulped by a subway train; you know, the usual.) Stalking the killer is the upstanding Zeke Banks (Rock), a detective who exposed a dirty cop 12 years earlier and has been ostracized ever since.

And that’s basically it: Zeke and his helpful new partner (Max Minghella) chase clues and argue with their colleagues while the murderer follows the Saw playbook line by line, with the pig heads and the cloaks and the traps and the creepy puppets and the tape-recorded monologues.

Darren Lynn Bousman, who made Saws II through IV, gives this film a different look than its predecessors: it’s set during a heat wave, and a lot of the action takes place in well-lit spaces. (Like all of the sequels, it’s shot in and around Toronto, but at least this time the city looks halfway attractive.)

The torture-trap scenes are still staged in gunmetal and ichor, of course, with grating sound cues and the franchise’s signature whiplashing camera thing to convey terror and panic. People would miss it, I guess.

It works well enough for a while: Rock’s energy makes every scene just a little unpredictable, and the presence of Samuel L. Jackson as his father – a retired, once-revered police captain who’s still around to needle Zeke with unwanted advice – gives Spiral a looseness the series badly needs.

But it soon becomes clear that screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger, who were also behind the previous reboot attempt Jigsaw, are less interested in breaking new ground than in playing the hits, and giving fans of the franchise more of the convoluted plotting, chronological trickery and gotcha endings that ground the series down in the first place. Still, if you want to watch someone’s fingers get pulled off in extreme closeup, where else can you turn?

@normwilner

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