Spiral: From the Book of Saw

The opening scene of Spiral finds a man hanging inside a subway tunnel, so that the only way to avoid getting nailed by an oncoming train is to trigger a device that will sever his tongue. The second scene has Chris Rock riffing on why Forest Gump couldn't be made today. Such is the nature of this oddball movie, which comes “from the book of Saw.” The Saw franchise has never been my thing. I hated the first three sufficiently that I didn't bother seeing any of the others. This reboot doesn't entirely float my boat either, although seeing Rock and Samuel L. Jackson in a torture porn flick at least provides some novelty value.

Rock plays Det. Zeke Banks, son of legendary former chief Marcus Banks (Jackson). Zeke isn't too popular in his department. Years prior, he turned in a corrupt colleague, and now the other officers view him as a rat. The current boss, Capt. Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols), forces him to take on a rookie partner, William Schenk (Max Minghella). Together, they look into a “Jigsaw copycat” who's kidnapping cops, forcing them to play the requisite deadly games. When Marcus disappears, it begins to seem that the killer is specifically looking to get Zeke's attention.

Like the other entries in the franchise, the kills are a major factor in Spiral. Characters are put in situations where they have a limited time to make a difficult choice: do something to maim themselves or die a gruesome death. Of course, they always decide to do the former, yet somehow never complete the task before the countdown stops and they meet their maker. Funny how that works. Since every scenario is a foregone conclusion, you don't really get a lot in the way of suspense.

The Saw pictures take pride in making the kills as repulsive as possible. That's certainly true here. Wounds, injuries, and deaths are depicted in stomach-churning detail. But as gory as they are, they're also extremely silly. In order to pull the murders off, the new Jigsaw not only has to have a lot of free time on his hands, he has to be an expert in mechanics, as the elaborate contraptions are not easily assembled. In this case, one involves waterboarding a character with hot wax, and another is designed to pull someone's fingers off. Great suspension of disbelief is required to buy any of this. I've never been able to make that leap with the series. Silliness is not scary, no matter how gross.

The more straightforward investigation scenes are somewhat better. While a couple moments stop to allow Chris Rock to do a little out-of-place comedy, the actor takes his mostly-dramatic role seriously. He's very good, too, conveying an inner rage that drives Zeke's determination to find the killer. Director Darren Lynn Bousman creates an eerie vibe during the sequences where Zeke and Schenk make their way to a crime scene, unsure of what atrocity they'll find.

Spiral has sociopolitical aspirations in its plot. A psycho targeting cops is the film's way of touching on issues of police brutality and corruption that have made news in recent years. It doesn't have anything particular to say on the subject, though. Some cops are bad! Raise your hand if you didn't already know that. When you get right down to it, that's a serious issue. Combining it with violence that the audience is supposed to get off on proves to be a queasy mixture, at best.

Again, I've been no fan of the Saw phenomenon. What devoted fans will think of Spiral is anybody's guess. I found it more tolerable than the three prior chapters I saw, for the sole reason that Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson are overqualified for the material. Mixing accomplished A-list stars with an exploitative, grotesque property is certainly something you don't see every day. Does it work? Not really because, after all, it's bound by the necessities of a Saw movie. Is it weirdly, confoundingly interesting? For sure.

out of four

Spiral: From the Book of Saw is rated R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, pervasive language, some sexual references and brief drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.