The “Saw” franchise is on its last legs. All the storylines have been played out – multiple times – and evil villains have come and gone, and come back again. The once-revolutionary body horror that became this trailblazing series’ M.O. has become all too familiar in the horror genre now, so why choose now to try and bring this dying franchise back to life? Well, because Chris Rock has an idea to revitalize it, of course.
After a chance meeting with the head of Lionsgate at a friend’s wedding, the ball was officially rolling. Rock pitched his idea and put the finishing touches on what would become “Spiral.” Marketed as a “fresh take” that would take the series to the “next level,” many unbelievers – myself included – were willing to drink the “Spiral” Kool-Aid. How much worse could it get after seven abysmal sequels? It turns out the answer is complicated.
Rock stars as a police detective caught in the middle of a killer’s sick game of revenge against a corrupt police force. “Spiral” starts strong, diving into the relevant story about police corruption, displaying some standout cinematography, and, of course, a gnarly kill. Color me impressed. Unfortunately, though, that’s as good as it gets – you can skip the rest of the film.
The interesting story about corruption becomes contrived and downright corny at times. Rock does his very best with the material. I’m torn trying to determine whether the material was too much for him, or whether it was so far below him he was unable to do anything to elevate it. A lot of his lines come off wooden and devoid of the emotion he was trying to convey. If it were up to me, I’m blaming the script for this.
Darren Lynn Bousman returns to the director’s chair for the fourth time in the franchise, which is the first misstep in this series of missteps. For a film whose marketing is bragging on it being new and fresh, it’s hard to claim recycling the filmmaker behind “Saw II,” “III” and “IV” is new and fresh! On top of Bousman, writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger penned the series’ last entry, “Jigsaw.” The fact that “Spiral” was ever touted as new or revitalizing is downright offensive.
However, the lack of relatable characters is the biggest misstep of all. Everyone is either getting tortured or being yelled at by Rock – that’s it. There is no emotional connection to any characters that helps to ground the film, so when the obligatory torturing does occur, it fails to maintain in any emotional investment the audience might have had.
As the film progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that the “Saw” formula is still the same old schtick – complete with a cardboard cutout villain and a twist you can see coming from a mile away. There truly is nothing new under the sun.
For all of its promise of neon-lit cinematography and a thrilling new spin, there is nothing in “Spiral” that sets it apart from its predecessors. No, not even Samuel L. Jackson yelling “I want to play a game” can save this mess.
“Spiral” is now playing in theaters.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.