'Spiral' a lackluster addition to 'Saw' canon

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)
Marisol Nichols, left, and Chris Rock star in "Spiral: From the Book of Saw." The movie opens Friday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

The early aughts are back in a big way, from fashion, to celebrity couplings, and now, the “Saw” franchise. Made by Aussie filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell (who since have gone on to great success in Hollywood), “Saw” splattered onto screens right before Halloween 2004, ushering in that oh-so-gory 2000s trend known politely as “torture porn.”

Six sequels followed every Halloween thereafter, before the games-obsessed serial killer Jigsaw took a break. He returned with his own movie in 2017, and now, “Spiral,” the first film “from the book of Saw,” has returned with that ever-bedeviling question: “would you like to play a game?”

Honestly? Nah. Like low-rise jeans and platform flip-flops, some things are just better left in the aughts. Despite the return of Darren Lynn Bousman, the director of “Saw II, III and IV,” this blood-soaked police procedural is not an auspicious debut “from the book of Saw.” It’s a poorly made, miscast mess that knows neither what it wants to be or what it’s trying to say.

In “Spiral,” “Jigsaw” writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger have cooked up a story of crooked cops playing a game of cat-and-mouse (or rat-in-trap) with a Jigsaw copycat killer. Chris Rock (also an executive producer) stars as Zeke Banks, an angry, loudmouth legacy detective who hasn’t had an easy time at the precinct after snitching on a former partner. When one of his police pals ends up splashed all over a subway tunnel, Banks is compelled to participate in a gruesome scavenger hunt across the city, chasing down scattered gift boxes containing the tongues and fingers of his comrades courtesy of a pig-masked tormentor.

Though plenty gory, there’s no suspense, or even scares, to speak of in “Spiral,” as the story just sort of happens at the audience rather than drawing us in. Bousman and cinematographer Jordan Oram attempt to inject some uneasiness into “Spiral,” with an aesthetic that can be described as “queasy,” “woozy” and “disorienting,” as a jittery handheld camera roams relentlessly, catching characters in wonkily-framed close-ups cut together with a rapid-fire edit that indeed feels like a jigsaw puzzle at times.

The visuals are as chaotic as the loud, sweaty energy emanating from every character. In “Spiral,” Rock has substituted “shouting” for “acting,” and every other actor matches that, with the exception of Max Minghella, playing his rookie partner, William Schenk, who is eager to soak up everything from the unconventional detective.

What’s even more frustrating, there aren’t even any real games. The killer, like Jigsaw, loves to pose impossible “would you rather” scenarios, but it doesn’t matter what choice the victim makes: both equally bad options unfold anyway. There’s no decision-making, hemming, hawing or desperation that made the first “Saw” kind of interesting.

The original torture porn trend was a product of the political climate of the time, as the “War on Terror” manifested “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, CIA torture reports. Those in power tried to pass off torture as useful in some way, a means to an end, and horror filmmakers grappled with what that meant, gorily.

“Spiral” exists in a very different cultural moment, and the filmmakers attempt to speak to it, with a killer using torture as a means of exerting bloody justice on corrupt cops. But they try too hard to avoid stepping on too many toes, resulting in a film that’s muddled and messy on many levels. “Spiral” is a ragged primal scream about police brutality and corruption that’s unfortunately unintelligible.

‘SPIRAL’

1.5 stars (out of 4)

Cast: Chris Rock, Max Minghella, Samuel L. Jackson, Marisol Nichols

Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Rated: R (for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, pervasive language, some sexual references and brief drug use.)