The original Saw series is a relic of the post-9/11 time when we wanted to watch bastards pay for whatever in the slowest and most excruciating way possible. In another generation, we may well see the spinoff Spiral as a relic of our time, when police are being called to answer for their brothers’ sins as well as their own. I’ll say this: The movie that comes out this week has more sophisticated ideas in its head than its predecessors. Trouble is, it needed more.
Chris Rock plays Det. Zeke Banks, a homicide cop in the same unnamed big city that bore witness to Jigsaw’s murders in the past. Zeke is called on to investigate a corpse splattered by a subway train, only to discover that it belongs to a fellow detective and close friend (Dan Petronijevic). A Jigsaw copycat is on the loose, specifically targeting police for his overly elaborate murders. While friends and enemies on the force find themselves alone in jerry-built torture machines while a familiar video asks them if they want to play a game, lead detective Zeke receives the new killer’s taunting package deliveries. The perpetrator shows exactly what he thinks of cops by leaving behind a trail of pig masks, pig dolls, and on one occasion a whole pig carcass.
Darren Lynn Bousman directed the second, third, and fourth movies in the series, and he has not evolved as a filmmaker since then. All the invention has gone into the torture devices. Possibly if I’d been the victim of police brutality at some point in my life, I’d find it more edifying to see bad cops forced to bite off their own tongues and cut off their own fingers. As it is, it doesn’t do much for me.
Better stuff comes when the movie depicts Zeke as a pariah within his own department for testifying against a fellow cop (Patrick McManus) who killed an unarmed man. That ex-cop — now a hollowed-out ex-convict running a support group — admits, “We were out of control.” No wonder Zeke finds the case leading him to his father (Samuel L. Jackson), the retired police chief who cleaned up the streets by dubious means. (Really, though: Zeke doesn’t suspect something by the flashy car and the apartment building that his dad owns? I’m disappointed in his detective work.) It would have been nice if Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger’s script had had a better answer to the killer’s contention that murdering a few cops in an excruciating and extremely public way will scare the other officers into behaving themselves. I mean, maybe, but somehow I doubt it.
Chris Rock is only fair playing Zeke as an embittered case who’s jaded by the everyday horrors of his job. What he does bring here is more personality than any of the series’ anonymous previous actors, as he poses as a meth addict to gain access to a dealer’s crib, references New Jack City, and bitches to his partner (Max Minghella) about his bad marriage: “Choosing this life means choosing to die alone.” His bracing presence plus the script’s Black Lives Matter angle makes Spiral a flawed but unique addition to the burgeoning canon of Black horror films, one that’s way better than Antebellum or Bad Hair. If it’s going to be as good as Jordan Peele’s stuff, however, a sequel will need some serious work.
Starring Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. Written by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger. Rated R.