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Following the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020, Chris Rock’s frank 2018 riff “A Few Bad Apples” provided a measure of viral catharsis. “Bad apple? That’s a lovely name for ‘murderer,’” he quips about deadly cops. “Some jobs can’t have bad apples.”
If you listen closely, above the blood-curdling screams resounding off concrete torture rooms in “Spiral: From the Book of Saw,” one can imagine the truths behind Rock’s well-aimed punchlines hanging like an orchard above the gruesome cacophony. An attempt to revive the graphic thrills of the moribund franchise that gave horrific meaning to the phrase “Do you wanna play a game?” by delivering a socially conscious narrative, “Spiral” offers the comedian another dramatic change of pace after his star turn in “Fargo” Season 4.
If only this ninth installment in the “Saw” series carried more weight than Monopoly money, its 93-minute runtime wouldn’t feel like we hit a “Go to Jail” space. In case you haven’t seen the film’s opening scene, recently released online by Lionsgate, some light spoilers ahead: A detective (Dan Petronijevic) in pursuit of a suspect jumps into a sewer. He’s quickly subdued by a hooded figure wearing a pig’s head. He awakens chained to the tunnel’s ceiling, his tongue bolted in a metal vice grip, barbed wire tightened around his wrists. He dangles gingerly on a tiny wooden step stool as a train barrels toward him.
That sequence represents what works best in the “Saw” franchise: the ingenious unwinnable scenarios constructed for peak gore, copious blood and quacking panic. Almost every minute that follows explains what doesn’t.
The explicit, grisly script co-written by “Jigsaw” duo Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger opens on firm, well-meaning ground, introducing Det. Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Rock) as your typical shoot from the hip lone wolf investigator. His interoffice relationships might best be described as icy. That’s not by choice. Years earlier, Banks turned in his partner after the crooked cop murdered an unarmed witness. He broke the silent code: Don’t rat. And no one’s forgiven him since. Least of all his father, the now-retired police Chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson), who just so happens to be his landlord too. The setup is so delectable it makes the film’s crash and burn all the more disappointing.
At least Rock’s ability to deliver sharp comedy is on full display: He registers big laughs on topics ranging from Forrest Gump to cheating spouses. And he’s especially comfortable sharing scenes with Jackson. With the elder actor’s poetic ear for a lyrically placed expletive and the younger’s equally hardy talents for blue humor, their pairing should carry the day. But with their screen time inexplicably limited, director Darren Lynn Bousman tries to make up the difference by planting a few “Pulp Fiction” references in several frames. (Spoiler: They’re kitsch at best.)
Soon after its encouraging opening, “Spiral” clumsily uncoils. Zeke is assigned a partner — the eager Det. William Schenk (Max Minghella) — by his captain, Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols). Lemon-lime boxes tied with yarn, containing USBs addressed to Zeke, arrive at the MPD precinct. Video files of a Jigsaw copycat reveal a plan to kidnap and kill the dirty cops on the force, beginning with the victim in the opening sequence, one of Zeke’s only friends. Oh, and did I mention that Marcus Banks goes missing too? The film spins so many plates that Bousman barely notices when one crashes to the ground.
As more and more cops wind up MIA, the reinvented “Saw” entry stumbles into a ho-hum freakout. Bousman and editor Dev Singh’s use of flashbacks to recount the deadly games undercut the impact of the precisely formulated kills staged in mucky abandoned factories and stark disused lofts. “Saw III” used a similar narrative schema, and the method deflated the ratcheting horror in that film too.
The pig puppet dressed in a police uniform pulverizes the nail on the head, while the grimy, color-coded references to “Se7en” just remind us of what “Spiral” isn’t: enthralling or suspenseful. As the script loses its nimble dialogue, Rock sheds his snappier early mixture of smart stand-up and steely-eyed gumshoe for an unsuccessful pouty-faced exterior. That’s not so much to do with Rock’s performance choices. They’re fine. This script’s tonal fissures just create too wide a divide for him to cross.
But these critical deficiencies pale in comparison to the clearest concern: “Spiral” has nothing to say. Yes — we witness dirty cops accused of police brutality (among other heinous crimes) brought to unspeakable punishment. Beyond the harrowing sentence, however, does Bousman’s horror flick use racial injustice as much more than a genre device? Do the kills hold any greater political resonance than throwing out a few bad apples? Is this simply blinkered bloodletting posing as astute political commentary?
The whole affair is a shallow bob for meaning strewn across my uninterested eyes, a miscalculation that fails at delivering shocks or skin-crawling disgust and ends so abruptly it’s as though everyone knew to exit stage left before the jig was up. If “Spiral” hoped to reinvent the franchise, the dull installment merely amounts to bad fan fiction.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.