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Chris Rock, crudely bandaged and spattered with blood, points a gun offscreen in Spiral: From the Book of Saw Photo: Brooke Palmer/Lionsgate

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Spiral is a weak echo of the Saw franchise’s past strengths

Deathtraps? Check. Gore? Check. Central characters worth caring about? Well…

Much like the twisting spirals that serve as one of the Saw series’ most recognizable motifs, the franchise is slowly moving away from its core. Spiral is the ninth film in its series, but as the subtitle From the Book of Saw indicates, this edition isn’t part of the long continuity of stories about the serial killer Jigsaw — it just takes place in his universe. While Spiral takes place long after Jigsaw’s death, in the same city where he did his killing, the connections to the throughline end there. It doesn’t share any of its characters, motives, or histories with the franchise, and that inconsistency leaves a gaping hole in Spiral that isn’t filled in with anything proportionately interesting.

Spiral is directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, who also directed Saw II through Saw IV. In those chapters, he oversaw the death of Jigsaw, the rise of his co-conspirators, and the height of the torturous Rube Goldberg contraptions that made the Saw series infamous for its complicated, overplanned methods of killing people Jigsaw deemed no longer worthy of life. Initially, Jigsaw’s targets were people who had either given up on appreciating the gift of life, or powerful but crooked people who’d lost interest in maintaining fairness and justice. In Jigsaw’s eyes, drug addicts and corrupt cops deserved punishment, but his plans always included some thin veneer of redemption and education, however impossible or painful those lessons might be. The roots of the Saw empire are more an ultraviolent version of Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town than they are random killings.

But Spiral is a watered-down version of the core elements that make a Saw movie into a Saw movie.

Samuel L. Jackson, gun drawn, looks into a room with red spray-painted spirals on the walls Photo: Brooke Palmer/Lionsgate

Like many of the other Saw films, Spiral starts with an excruciating death. Detective Boswick (Letterkenny’s Dan Petronijevic) follows a thief down into an underground train tunnel, gun drawn, so he can enforce the law and save the day. When they reach the tracks, it becomes clear that the pursuit was a ploy to lure Boswick into a premeditated setup, and he isn’t long for this world. The tension and blood flow start strong in Spiral, which is one advantage for series fans.

The rest of the film follows Chris Rock as detective Zeke Banks, who’s going undercover with a group of criminals who are targeting another group of presumed criminals in a hotel room, before making a nearly smooth getaway. Zeke is brought in to answer to his captain, Angie (Marisol Nichols), for disobeying his assignment to the homicide squad. That dressing-down turns into a scene of backstory and exposition, revealing Zeke’s history of turning in corrupt cops, the reasons he can’t trust other officers, and the fact that his father (Samuel L. Jackson) is a decorated retired captain whose shadow Zeke will never escape.

This sort of plot-vomit can be useful for quick-and-dirty explanations of premise and character motivation, but Bousman and writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger never seem confident that their audience will remember the details. They repeatedly flash back to this exchange, to remind the audience what was said. Spiral runs at a tight 93 minutes, and yet it keeps blowing time on callbacks to this conversation or to other plot points, explicitly showing, again and again, what would be easy to recall independently.

Unlike other Saw films, Spiral focuses almost entirely on the police officers, and not the victims or killers. Bousman and the writers do linger on the kills, showing the victims suffering beat by beat through their personally designed hells. But the deaths are framed through Zeke discovering them, and his excavation of the case. This isn’t exactly a police procedural, since there’s very little investigation, and each clue is literally delivered to the police station. But Spiral’s view is always squarely on Zeke. Given that Rock is one of the most recognizable actors in the series, this does change the mood of the film. Viewers are no longer merely indulging in escapist torture-titillation, or deepening their understanding of a killer. In Spiral, they’re asked to invest their attention fully into Zeke’s character and his journey of discovery, even though his plot and character aren’t developed enough to warrant that attention.

Chris Rock squats by a skinless, shredded human body on train tracks in Spiral: From the Book of Saw Photo: Brooke Palmer/Lionsgate

Sadly for gorehounds, Spiral’s kills fail to continue the innovation and depravity expected from the franchise that arguably launched the modern “torture porn” subgenre. Spiral’s deathtraps do inflict considerable pain on their victims, but they often target a single body part, and there’s usually a clear, straightforward path to escape. No one has to dig into abdominal cavities to retrieve keys, or burrow out of razor-wire nests, as in past Saw movies. Instead, these gadgets ask victims to sacrifice one body part for another, as if they were filling out anatomical Mad Libs.

Arguably, the reason these deaths and devices are underwhelming is because Jigsaw (who died in Saw III) isn’t at the helm anymore, and the latest Jigsaw copycat lacks the imagination of others who took up the job earlier in the series. A copy is never as sharp as the original, and it might be asking too much of a Jigsaw copy to live up to the original’s inventive bloodlust. But the characters and story in Spiral never seem to make that argument, or even acknowledge the lesser quality of these less-imaginative torture machines. Spiral instead presents them with the same fanfare and drama as before, and expects viewers to not notice the difference.

Spiral doesn’t wholly lack charm. Even as a cop, Rock is at his best when he’s allowed to riff and project a confident persona. The comedian-turned-actor adds his own playfulness to the gruff character, and makes Zeke better for it. His opening scene earns some hard laughs while he goes off about Forrest Gump, as he tries to relax the criminals he’s embedded with. But when it comes time for Zeke to show confusion or concern, Rock merely squints. And he squints a lot. Rock’s last directorial project,Top Five, and his central role in Fargo season 4 both showed that acting abilities go far beyond just cracking jokes, but he never displays that range here. Whether it’s due to Bousman’s direction or Rock’s shallowly written character, he comes across as wooden.

There are no rules when it comes to long-running horror franchises. The Nightmare on Elm Street series devolved into cartoonish mayhem before returning to meta-horror and sincerity. The Conjuring movies splintered off into different character tracts and released multiple origin stories about the doll Annabelle. Saw’s running storyline killed off its central villain in movie number three, and is now forging its own path through this relaunch. Not every horror series needs to choose self-awareness or earnestness, but it should at least try to be the best version of whichever path it chooses. Spiral lacks depth and nuance, and by avoiding irony or camp, it’s asking to be taken seriously. This is not a fun romp through a field of bloodied mayhem, or a self-referential metatext filled with winks at the audience. Spiral presents itself as a police procedural without procedure, as a Saw movie without Jigsaw, and as a revenge film without emotions.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw opens in theatrical release on May 14.

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