Dir: Darren Lynn Bousman. Starring: Chris Rock, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, Samuel L Jackson. Cert 18, 93 mins
Horror franchises have a terrible habit of drowning themselves in their own lore. It’s especially true of Saw, which took the relatively simple premise of “victim wakes up in nasty contraption; contraption demands blood sacrifice if they hope to escape” and made it as waffly and complex as JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. The latest instalment, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, was heavily marketed as a clean break from what came before – a film that’s technically part of the same timeline, but spiritually feels like a reboot.
We were also promised a daring new vision courtesy of, surprisingly, comedian and actor Chris Rock. Though he didn’t direct, nor did he (officially) write the screenplay, Rock – a long-time fan of the franchise – bumped into a Lionsgate executive at a wedding and pitched an idea that was supposedly too electrifying to resist. That excitement doesn’t seem to have transferred to the film itself. Spiral doesn’t reinvent the Saw franchise; it merely picks up the central “trap” theme and transplants it into the narrative structure of a CSI episode. It’s hammy and predictable, where it should be lean and nasty.
Rock plays Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks, a renegade cop who, in the film’s defence, has a good reason for defying authority – nine years ago, he exposed his corrupt partner and has been stonewalled by his colleagues ever since. He’s resentful when his boss (Marisol Nichols) decides he should play mentor to newbie William Schenk (Max Minghella). Things get complicated when a Jigsaw copycat (this is the first film not to star Tobin Bell’s John Kramer) starts targeting the force, donning an instantly recognisable pig mask to fans of the series and claiming that he’s “here to help reform the metro police”.
It would seem, at first, that Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger’s screenplay is here to refashion Saw’s social commentary into a pointed condemnation of police brutality and corruption. But it’s not as if the franchise has never explored these themes before – Detective Lieutenant Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) was one of the main antagonists of the franchise. Plus, the film is so mealymouthed and non-committal in its conclusion that it actively takes away from what Saw was in its original conception. Without us spoiling too much, the motivations here are relatively intimate and personal, so that the traps are less a form of Old Testament punishment and more an overly elaborate way to commit plain, old murder.
It’s especially hard for Spiral to feel like reinvention with Darren Lynn Bousman – the director of Saw II, III, and IV – behind the camera. Here, he employs the same hyperactive, jittery aesthetics that see the camera excitedly rush to take in images of flayed flesh like it’s an old episode of MTV Cribs. The major difference is the prestige that Rock and his co-star Samuel L Jackson, who plays his father, bring to the project. But Jackson’s presence barely registers, while Rock isn’t given all that much to do emotionally. He yells and throws his hands up in frustration. He delivers bits of stand-up that, in context, read like poor pastiches of Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue – there’s an extended bit about Forrest Gump that isn’t particularly funny. And, for oddly extended periods of time, we watch him in “detective mode”, as he furrows his brow and narrows his eyes so that you can almost see the cartoon gears whirring inside his brain. Unfortunately, the only real mystery in Spiral is what exactly Rock’s revolutionary idea was meant to be.