If you were to peek inside my brain while I was watching “Spiral,” my train of thought was likely running something like this: “I really regret watching this—oh actually maybe this isn’t bad—no wait I regret this.” To say that I’m not the target audience for the “Saw” franchise, of which prior to “Spiral” I had seen exactly one installment, would be an understatement, but I find it interesting when long-running franchises can find a way to reinvent themselves. It was that curiosity, combined with an insatiable urge just to exist in a movie theater for a couple of hours after the year we’ve had, that drew me to check out “Spiral,” which despite the new direction the story takes from previous installments, ended up being pretty much exactly what I expected.
“Spiral,” which is being referred to as “from the book of Saw,” is the ninth film in the “Saw” series, but it also exists outside of the main storyline of the previous films. Those followed the Jigsaw Killer, who placed his victims in elaborate traps that forced them to inflict pain on themselves or others in order to escape with their lives. In “Spiral,” it becomes apparent that a copycat Jigsaw Killer is on the prowl when a police detective is found head in a subway tunnel, having been hit by a train. This killer is set on reforming the police department by targeting officers and placing them in traps that have ties to their corrupt pasts. Heading the investigation is Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), who struggles with living under the shadow of his former police chief father, Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson), and with the repercussions of his exposing a corrupt cop earlier in his career—his colleagues haven’t been willing to work with him ever since.
As a fan of horror movies but not so much torture porn, “Spiral” is much more gross than scary. Even so, this film seemed lean on the blood and gore, framing this story first and foremost as a police procedural instead. “Spiral,” which is directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (who helmed the second, third, and fourth “Saw” movies) and written by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger (who penned the screenplay for the series’ 2017 reboot “Jigsaw”), initially presents an intriguing premise, but it quickly gets muddled in the complications of it all. “Spiral” sets itself up to tell a story revolving around police corruption, but it tells that story from the perspective of the police. Is this an instance where we should actually be rooting for the killer to achieve his goal? Will the killer’s crimes force the department to reflect upon its past and reform? When it comes to exploring these ideas, “Spiral” does the bare minimum, opting instead for a story that relies on fairly obvious twists while hitting all the generic detective story beats. Even all of the characters are police drama archetypes: the jaded detective (Rock), his fresh, idealistic new partner (William Schenk, played by Max Minghella), the no-nonsense police captain (Angie Garza, played by Marisol Nichols), and the corrupt detective who frequently butts heads with our protagonist (Fitch, played by Richard Zeppieri).
Many of these performances fit snugly into their types, not remarkable but fine for what their role calls for. Rock, who was a key figure in getting this film made, is the clear standout, and “Spiral” serves as an intriguing direction for him. Tonally, his performance can be a bit uneven (we didn’t need to see him essentially workshopping stand-up in the film’s opening, even if that “Forrest Gump” drag was pretty funny), but he lends a lot of charisma that makes this film that much more watchable. The film’s structure, which gradually feeds us tidbits about his past in brief flashbacks over the course of the movie, also makes his character a bit more intriguing. But the dynamic between Zeke and other key characters is woefully underexplored, even when they are integral to the story. Elements of this film really hinge on father/son relationships, but that between Zeke and Marcus is rarely seen, not to mention that Zeke’s estranged wife and son are thrown in, apparently just to emphasize how much of a messed-up loner he is. Jackson does, however, get to hurl some of his signature swears in what little screen time he has.
I can’t speak to how effective the handling of the Jigsaw character, the violence, and this story will be for existing “Saw” fans, but as someone who only watched the first “Saw” and has only a cursory knowledge of the rest of the franchise, I found “Spiral” to be easily accessible. But it also didn’t inspire me to seek out the prior films I haven’t seen, or to look forward to the future sequels to segment of the story could certainly spawn. It isn’t very interesting visually, despite the film’s posters and marketing appearing very distinct from that of the rest of the franchise, and I’m not a fan of the choppy editing used in the film’s more violent moments. Its story and characters are generic, its messaging confusing and shallow, and its finale frustratingly abrupt. I appreciate the attempt to do something new, but as far as I can tell, “Spiral” feels like a lot more of the same.
“Spiral” is now playing in theaters and is available to watch on demand. Runtime: 93 minutes. Rated R.