Oh, so there’s your killer right there.
We’re not that deep into the sloppy and gory torture-porn crime procedural “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” when a certain character does a certain thing that might seem inconsequential to everyone else in the room but is an obvious “tell” to the audience we have our killer. There’s no other reason for this character to do that one particular thing.
Not that figuring out whodunnit always spoils a movie. After all, there’s only a small handful of suspects in most murder mysteries, and even if we’ve narrowed it down to one or two candidates early on, we can enjoy the journey if we’re watching a well-crafted story. Alas, the ninth installment in the “Saw” franchise doesn’t meet those standards. Despite the usual depraved creativity from the psychotic mastermind pulling off a string of killings, a few darkly funny moments and a first-rate cast led by Chris Rock, “Spiral” lives down to its name. It spirals downward into a ludicrous, dumbed-down horror story more concerned with grossing out the audience than in providing any compelling reason for this long-running franchise to keep chugging along, leaving a trail of blood in its wake.
This is the fourth “Saw” movie for Darren Lynn Bousman, and he clearly knows how to stage those infamous scenes where some unseen, creepy-sounding monster has kidnapped a targeted individual and strapped them inside some insanely complicated device and wants to play a “game” in which the victim must choose between such fun consequences as suffering severe injuries, killing someone else or just saying the hell with it and dying a gruesome death. Within the first 10 minutes or so, “Spiral” actually identifies itself as a combo platter of three genres:
- It’s a definitely a “Saw” movie, with an opening scene that dares us to keep our eyes on the screen as we see a guy ensnared in a device on a subway track that gives him the choice between severing his own tongue or allowing a train to turn him into human lasagna.
- It’s also a Chris Rock comedy vehicle. The first time Rock’s Detective Zeke Banks appears on screen, he’s delivering an hilarious, edgy riff on “Forrest Gump” that sounds like something straight out of a stand-up special.
- And it’s a cliché-riddled cop movie, as evidenced by the very next scene, in which undercover cop Zeke is read the riot act by his boss, Capt. Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols), who yells at him about not being a team player and she can’t have this s--- anymore and the city is on the verge of boiling over during this heatwave — and the whole thing is such an obvious homage/ripoff of the original “Beverly Hills Cop,” we half expect Rock and Nichols to turn to the camera and bow when it’s over.
As for the alleged plot in “Spiral,” someone is kidnapping, torturing and killing cops — all of them from Zeke’s precinct — and is doing so in the twisted style of the late and not lamented Jigsaw, who was killed off a bunch of movies ago but has inspired a number of disciples and copycats. The killer keeps sending file drives containing video clues and horrific “souvenirs” such as severed fingers and limbs to Zeke, who has been teamed up against his wishes with the rookie Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella), in part because nobody else will work with Zeke after he turned in a dirty cop a dozen years earlier. Zeke’s only other true ally is his father Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), the legendary former chief of police. (Director Bousman seems to have a thing for “Pulp Fiction,” given the casting of Jackson, a visual reference to “Jules and Vincent” and Rock’s character being named Ezekiel, as in, “Ezekiel 25:17, the path of the righteous man is beset on all sides …”).
One after another, cops from the same precinct are ambushed and usually rendered unconscious before waking up and finding themselves propped up in elaborate contraptions that must have taken months to construct (imagine the testing process alone). The unseen Jigsaw-wannabe reminds them of their corrupt ways and then explains exactly how they’ll die — unless they take some sort of action that will “only” result in mutilation or paralysis but will allow them to live. Meanwhile, Zeke tries to piece together Jigsaw’s puzzle, which often leads him on a wild goose chase before Zeke figures it out, usually too late to make a difference. We know we’re heading to one last confrontation where Zeke will find himself face-to-face or at least face-to-masked-face with this latest Jigsaw knockoff, and we know the ending will almost certainly leave the door open for yet another “Saw” movie — and that prospect is just wearying.