My brain is still attempting to understand how Spiral is a Saw movie at all. Okay yes, it takes place in the same universe as the original Jigsaw killings. And the puzzle/game nature of the killings is meant to look like copycat murders, but the messages the killer leaves feature a guy in a pig mask, and there isn’t a tricycle in sight. In other words, it’s pretty clear that Spiral uses its “From the Book of Saw” tagline as a marketing ploy rather than actual connective tissue to that group of movies. About the only other similarity to the Jigsaw movies is returning director Darren Lynn Bousman, who helmed installments 2-4 of the Saw franchise. So there’s that.
Spiral comes out at an interesting time, when a percentage of the population has a great deal of everything from anxiety to hatred when it comes to the police, so it’s interesting that the targets of this new serial killer are crooked cops who are set up with elaborately staged deaths that somehow reflect the nature of their sins. Fingers are ripped off so they can never shoot an innocent person again to cover up a crime, tongues are severed so that someone will never lie, someone is skinned, and a female commanding officer has scalding hot wax slowly poured over her face, although her specific crime escapes me. And considering the hero of our story, Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) once turned in a dirty cop early in his career, there’s almost a sense that he might be tempted to let this killer just do his thing as long as he sticks exclusively to crooked officers (and this particular precinct seems to be populated by nothing but).
Banks’ father (Samuel L. Jackson) was a well-regarded police chief years earlier, and Zeke has felt like his long shadow will never stop hovering over him, nor can he live up to his father’s example since he was willing to turn in a fellow officer. He’s paid the price ever since, including getting shot by a perp years earlier when no other officers responded to his call for backup.
As written by Josh Stolberg & Pete Goldfinger, Spiral finds Zeke at a turning point in his life and career: he’s getting divorced, he’s attempting to find common ground with his somewhat estranged father, and after being put in charge of the killing of the first of many officers, he’s assigned a rookie partner in William Schenk (Max Minghella). What follows is a combination of two things: Rock getting ample time to simply monologue about things that piss him off, most of which are very funny; and a mystery that is both impossible to solve given the clues given to us but still remarkably easy to figure out because I’ve seen one or two whodunit movies in my day. But it doesn’t matter if you figure out who the killer is or not because it’s likely that no part of you will care who lives or dies in this movie since everyone is so easily dislikable and two-dimensional. Outside of Zeke’s troubled life and career path, we don’t get to know or care much about any of these characters.
Spiral alternates between gory, artless kills and Zeke being two or three steps behind the killer, always just too late to stop another death. As much as I adore Rock as a comic force, he’s never much impressed me as an actor, so when he’s called upon to emote and scream out in frustration or anger, he really goes into full Actor mode, and it’s slightly, unintentionally humorous. Perhaps the film’s biggest letdown is keeping Jackson and Rock apart for most of the movie. I could have watched them riff off each other for hours, but we only get a snippet of that and then they go their separate ways. They take very different paths toward finding this killer who seems to have plans for both of them, including a climactic moment involving Jackson that, in another movie, might have been politically rousing; instead, it comes across as grossly exploitative and obvious.
And the only thing that lowered my spirits more than that moment is the one right after it that clearly sets up a sequel. I’ll be interested to see if any future films make an attempt to distance themselves from the Saw movies and actually dare to be their own thing, but that doesn’t seem likely. Although I wasn’t expecting it, Spiral bummed me out because, outside of Rock’s comedic moments, it just feels like re-arranging tracks on a greatest hits album and calling it something new. Chalk this one up as a disappointment of the highest order.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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