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Spiral (2021)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Bring The Pain"
1 stars

When it was announced in 2019 that a new “Saw” movie was going to be coming, it may not have been that much of a surprise—familiar horror franchises have a tendency to get revived even after they appear to have run their course—but there were two aspects to the announcement that did raise a few eyebrows. The first was that the news was coming less than two years after “Jigsaw,” the 2017 attempt to revive the franchise that was cheap enough to be profitable but did not suggest any driving interest in continuing the saga with a ninth installment. The second, and by far odder, thing was that the film was going to be based on a story pitched by none other than Chris Rock, who would also star in it as well. The presence of Rock, along with co-star Samuel L. Jackson, will no doubt earn “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” more attention than one might normally expect from the ninth entry in a horror franchise that peaked with approximately ten minutes to go in the first installment and then plummeted sharply from that point on. However, whatever magic Rock was able to conjure up during his pitch clearly did not make it to the screen because while this may not necessarily be the worst of the “Saw” films, it may prove to be the most disappointing of the bunch thanks to its absolute inability to live up to its avowed ambitions to take the tired-and-true formula and do something new, interesting and provocative with it.

Rock plays Zeke Banks, a dedicated police detective who has been at odds with the other officers in his precinct ever since he turned in his dirty cop partner 12 years earlier. To make matters more difficult, his father (Jackson) was the celebrated former chief of police and he has always felt himself living in his shadow. Now he is a motormouth who, as the movie opens, is running a dangerous and elaborate sting operation on his own that inevitably goes sideways. This leads to the inevitable scene in which he is called on the carpet by the captain (Marisol Nichols) and forced to take on a rookie cop, William Schenck (Max Minghella), as his new partner in order to show him the ropes. Of course, Zeke wants nothing to do with the new guy at first but before long, he is peppering him with extended riffs on how Schenk’s happy life with his wife and young child will inevitably suffer under the pressures of being a cop.

Although this description may make “Spiral” sound more like a painfully ordinary cop movie, rest assured that there is also a painfully ordinary “Saw” movie going on as well. In the opening scene, a man is lured into the subway tunnels and ends up in a trap that requires him to slice out his own tongue in order to escape being run over by an approaching train. It turns out that the victim was a cop who was one of the few people on the force who was loyal to Zeke but who was also notorious for lying under oath while testifying in court. It turns out that Zeke’s precinct has long been a hotbed of corruption and malfeasance and someone is going around bumping off bad cops in elaborate ways that are clearly reminiscent of the presumably late John Kelly, the one and only Jigsaw. The assumptions is that one of Jigsaw’s fans is embarking on a copycat spree but Zeke isn’t convinced—the pattern of killing corrupt cops as twisted way of cleaning up the department suggests that there is something personal going on. As he plunges deeper into the mystery, the bodies—what is left of them, that is—begin to stack up as he tries to uncover the meaning behind the crimes and why he is the one being targeted to head the pursuit.

I confess to not being a fan of the “Saw” series as a whole (I think that I genuinely like more installments of the “Friday the 13th” franchise) but at least they had a certain purity of purpose—with the exception of the first one, which at least made vague stabs at being a police procedural, the films have all been little more than cinematic geek shows with no greater ambition than to present the most disgusting and brutal imagery imaginable while still somehow only earning an “R” rating from the brain trust at the MPAA. With the combination of the higher-caliber casting (certainly higher than the usual likes of Donnie Wahlberg and Costas Mandylor) and the undeniably provocative notion of taking the move towards police reform and presenting it in this particular context, “Spiral” seems to be the first “Saw” film since the original to aim for an audience other than the geek crowd—it seems to be trying to attract the kind of viewers who would normally not be caught dead at a “Saw” film but who did flock to see such politically engaged genre exercises as “Get Out” and “US.”

That sounds audacious, I suppose, but it appears that somewhere between that initial pitch and the beginning of filming, there was a colossal loss of nerve on the part of screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger and director Darren Lynn Bousman (returning to the fold after having directed the second, third and fourth episodes). The film makes some cosmetic breaks from the previous entries—the action is not limited almost entirely to a series of dingy warehouses and Rock gets to do long monologues that seem like bits written for and discarded from his stand-up act—but the changes to the formula do not add up to anything much and the conceit of using the torture porn template as a form of social commentary seems more gross and exploitative than any of the other films, where the philosophic meanderings about guilt, sin and retribution could just be dismissed as sophomoric nonsense.

And while “Spiral” may pretend to be some grand reinvention of the “Saw” formula, it quickly descends into the very same cliches that made the original films so tiresome after a while. Once again, far more time and energy has clearly gone into designing the ludicrously overcalled torture traps than in developing the story in meaningful or interesting ways. Eventually, it shifts back into full “Saw” mode, complete with the usual array of convoluted flashbacks and plot twists that are nowhere near as clever or audacious as they pretend to be. The two stars are also pretty much wasted as well—Rock comes off horribly with a performance that basically sees him screaming throughout while Jackson has one major scene in the early going before more or less disappearing from the proceedings for most of the remaining running time.

Nowhere near the radical reinvention of generic tropes that was at least implicitly promised, “Spiral” is just another lame and loathsome freak show that offers up the same old crap with only minor cosmetic changes—such as the killer wearing a pig mask this time around—to separate it from its predecessors. The end result is a film that seems destined to please no one—the horehounds will be bored and annoyed with the focus on police-related matters while those in the mood for a politically aware horror film will most likely be put off by the screenplay that squanders any number of opportunities and the extended sequences of empty-headed slaughter. In fact, the only remotely unnerving thing about it comes right at the end where—horror of horrors—it blatantly sets itself up for yet another entry. Maybe someday they will do a sequel where the mad killer goes off to Hollywood and starts bumping off film executives who don’t know when enough is enough.

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originally posted: 05/14/21 10:44:25
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  14-May-2021 (R)



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