Thursday, May 20, 2021


Somehow certain film series get affection from me simply by hanging around long enough. I didn’t much care for the Saw movies as they came out — they’re grimy and gory and deliberately unpleasant in a lot of ways, not scary so much as gross and unrelenting — but as the years go by without them, I sort of miss their singular charms. I recall with fondness some of the intense traps — its villain Jigsaw was good about forcing people to saw off their own hands or swim through a pool of used needles or dig around in a corpse’s guts to free themselves — and memorable twists. I can appreciate the ugly precision of its best executed designs. They certainly did their thing and did it with more cheap thrills than the uglier imitators that oozed out afterwards. Now the whole thing has been revived with Spiral: From the Book of Saw, a film that stars Chris Rock as a beleaguered detective confronted with a Jigsaw copycat killer who is busy ensnaring crooked cops in new traps. The opening scene has a policeman known for lying on the stand — or so the filtered voice in a pig mask warbles out of a dusty tube television — hanging by his tongue in a subway tunnel. If he cuts it off, he can avoid the oncoming train. Devious, no? The movie immediately sinks into the flimsy slime of the familiar Saw style.

The movie sets up a potential with fresh ideas in the same old Saw, especially as we cut from the explosive splatter of the opening to Rock’s undercover cop doing a tight, funny two-minute riff on Forrest Gump. Although his presence in the lead turns some of the clunkier scenes into something out of a Saw parody, he brings a real investment in the gnarled ideas intertwined with the gore. His character is shunned by his colleagues for having turned in a crooked cop more than a decade ago. He’s still finding dead rats left on his desk. Now he and his new partner (Max Minghella) are on the trail of clues left by the mysterious killer. Even his ex-cop father (Samuel L. Jackson) thinks they’re in over their head. What’s smartest about Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger’s screenplay is the way it makes the cops a deplorable bunch; we can understand where the sense of righteousness that powers the killer’s murderous impulses comes from. Even Rock, who is presented as the most honorable of the bunch, thinks nothing of breaking a suspect’s leg and then taunting him by poking at the bone while taking a selfie. Enlivening the ideas is the casting, the best novelty the picture has to offer. Rock looks like a fan enjoying sinking into the tropes, elevated with his simmering stone-faced smirks. And here’s the answer to the question you might not’ve asked: What if Samuel L. Jackson was in a Saw movie? “You want to play games? Let’s play games,” he snarls, calling the unseen killer his favorite four-syllable profanity.

Without these leads, this would be a far less worthy entry, as most of it is standard Saw stuff. The movie never quite lives up to its promise, despite a steady steam of nasty murder traps springing regularly — one killer cop gets his trigger finger pulled off; another goes missing only to have his tattoo delivered to a colleague in a gift box with the message “Am I getting under your skin?” — and the thrust of the picture gutsily saying the only thing scarier than a serial killer is a crooked cop. The investigation proceeds with clunky pacing, and the filmmaking, from series regular Darren Lynn Bousman, is jumpier than the meager shocks it has to offer. There’s little dread or horror here, and it's hard to work up an interest in the characters when most supporting roles are thinly drawn types. Even the potential sick catharsis of the revenge killings is occasionally underplayed by belated shorthand backstory explaining their issues. Both the ideas and the characters are often ill-served by the overripe old fashioned made-for-TV movie melodrama of the screenplay — including such confidently silly choices like a flashback in which a character is meant to be read as younger because their baseball hat is now backwards and his dad has sprouted a mustache. It’s par for the course for the franchise, which prizes its three-card-monte convolutions and nesting-doll backtracking. But who said cheap horror efforts adding a bloody beating social heart have to be tidy or sensible? To see the Saw series is to seesaw from squirming highs to spelunking lows. It comes with the territory, and in the uneven wobbling this one arrives at a potent finale. As the full picture emerges, the knotty vengeance rests on sharp understanding of cops' prejudices, and scratches certain itches. The final scene is a storm of reveals and guns and hidden double-layers in a trap that’s pulled with a sick logic. And that’s almost enough.

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