Spiral: From the Book of Saw
starring Chris Rock, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, Samuel L. Jackson
written by Josh Stolberg & Peter Goldfinger
directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
by Walter Chaw It's so familiar it's fatiguing, another one of these projects that begins with passion and the best of intentions and ends up chewed to paste and regurgitated as this thin, masticated gruel. Is Darren Lynn Bousman's Spiral (a.k.a. Spiral: From the Book of Saw) the product of too many notes from too many people, or simply the wrong people? Or maybe there weren't enough voices in the room to challenge accepted wisdom, which tends to be unreliable more often than not. Spiral occupies a weird space where it's both desperate and cocksure. In moments of duress, one tends to revert to the familiar and the comfortable, so when things are obviously going south for Chris Rock, still-aspiring movie star, Chris Rock, legendary stand-up comic, tries to assert himself. The script is a mess, and the grafts meant to save the patient have been rejected. Spiral probably should've been killed at inception.
The high concept is not so very high after all, as Rock plays disgraced maverick Detective Zeke, who is unsurprisingly disliked by his peers. Is it because of his past indiscretions, or because he speaks in shtick rather than in sentences? His dad, Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), used to be the Chief, but now he's a retired "motherfucker" dispenser whose presence clarifies that the big concept in Spiral is to address the sins of the fathers as a metaphor for a legacy of corruption in The Force. That this Serpico will be told through the eyes of two Black cops, the younger of whom is played by one of the smartest stand-ups of his generation--that's just cream for the coffee. Zeke is on the trail of a twisted serial killer who seems inspired by franchise staple Jigsaw, who favoured sadistic puzzle rooms and devices that challenged his victims to appreciate their lives better. Think O. Henry, but disgusting. A shame the traps are ironic in the Alanis Morrisette sense as opposed to the delicious sense (a perjurer must contemplate ripping out his tongue, a person who points his finger at others must consider having his fingers pulled out); Spiral is exceedingly stupid as only something thought to be exceedingly clever can be. At least the first couple of traps are trying, I guess.
Consider the sad fate of Capt. Garza (Marisol Nichols), who's threatened with being waterboarded with hot wax. The killer tells her it's because she's spent her career "covering up" for others and never "sticking her neck out" for the innocent, so now, unless she chooses to sever her spinal cord, she'll be covered in boiling goo. I have different thoughts about dispatching a beautiful woman by disfiguring her facially with a molten substance: it's primal in its misogyny, just profoundly hateful. It turns out the killer wants Zeke--who actually seems to be hated by the other cops because he's honest, not because he has a killer 30 seconds on Forrest Gump and some thoughts on "woke culture" and pilates and unfaithful bitches and so on--to help him clean up the dirty 5-0 by... Well, it's not clear what he wants Zeke to do beyond letting him go.
But wouldn't letting him go be something a bad cop does? Is Spiral doing the double-reverse triple-salchow in which Zeke will be punished if he fails to punish the killer? What if Zeke must choose between punishing the killer and saving his own father? And what if the killer's actions are righteous? (Meaning that if Zeke saves his father, thus releasing the killer, he's not making a choice so much as just doing two good things.) And if the killer in this Saw movie isn't occupying a moral space, then is Spiral suggesting, Promising Young Woman-like, that the po-po are the real heroes here and we should all be more respectful of their authority? Look, it's not worth thinking about. Spiral is woefully plotted, obviously manipulated in post-production to include more of Rock's solid-gold comedy club think-piece monologues, and at the end of the day, it's a vanity project from someone who has never really demonstrated the ability to inhabit a supporting character in a film, much less carry one as the lead. More than a disaster, the picture is a notable, conspicuous disaster: a police procedural without a mystery; a buddy-cop comedy neither funny nor rich in interpersonal connections; and a horror film that isn't scary. Spiral is mean in a childish way. It's gross, though, I'll give it that.