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film review

Chris Rock and Max Minghella in Spiral.Brooke Palmer/Handout

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  • Spiral
  • Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
  • Written by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger
  • Starring Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson and Max Minghella
  • Classification R; 93 minutes

In an interview with Empire magazine, Darren Lynn Bousman – director of Saw II, III, IV and now Spiral – said the newest instalment of the divisive horror series “feels more like Seven,” and acknowledged the way that he had, perhaps too willingly, leaned into gore as a gimmick in his previous films within the franchise. These aspirations toward a mid-brow David Fincher feel – as opposed to the torture-porn inclinations of Hostel director Eli Roth, whose work the Saw series has been perhaps unfairly compared with – were guided by none other than Chris Rock, who serves as Spiral’s star and executive producer.

Rock plays Zeke Banks, a detective estranged from his cop peers after turning in one of their own dirty yet esteemed co-workers. Working largely in the shadow of his father, former chief of police Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson), Zeke becomes the focus of a serial killer whose crimes echo those of the Jigsaw Killer who terrorized the city several years prior. Rightfully distrustful of his long-time colleagues, Zeke is given no choice but to work the case with a rookie partner, William Schenk (Max Minghella), a family man whose world view has not yet become as jaded as the weathered detective’s own.

It is easy to see why Bousman and the rest of the Saw writing and producing team would jump at the chance to work with beloved comic Rock, even beyond an eagerness to erase the failures of the previous Saw reboot, 2017′s Jigsaw, from our cultural memory. Rock’s sharp yet breezy humour has long touched on the ineptitude of cops in general; his character’s ability here to stand as a sort of “commentary from within” is not unsurprising. Likewise, the ability for audiences to identify with both Rock and Jackson – who work wonderfully off of each other, despite Jackson’s disappointingly limited presence – is a welcome change of pace from the typical emotional disposability of central characters in the series’ later iterations.

That said, the two megastars can’t make up for a story that doesn’t seem to understand the routes and touchstones that its inspirational predecessors followed. Spiral too often gets in its own way and reveals its internal machinations before they’re due. For audiences not familiar with the franchise’s narrative strategies, this kind of obviousness is a complete no-no. Here, it deflates the story world (and, more importantly, that specific feeling of enjoyment that Saw viewers are chasing), its easy legibility being exactly what renders it unsuccessful.

While the world of Saw has never been intentionally comedic, long-time fans have had reason to laugh and cheer as previous tropes, characters and storylines become remixed, mish-mashed and transmuted, almost irreducibly so. While Spiral introduces what we might kindly call more focused comedy in the form of Zeke’s continued one-liners – a comic relief that is more than welcome, despite landing strangely at times – it lacks the ability to touch base with the innately absurd and hilarious heart of the series.

These are films that chaotically upended their given expectations of narrative, never mind editing – that, in their final scenes, gave us all-too-lengthy montages, many of which included moments that had happened just seconds before. They also gave us not one, but two opportunities to revel like pigs in mud at the absolute heights of actor Cary Elwes’s frenzied thespian energy. Hell, even Jigsaw gave us the glow-up of Billy the Puppet.

Spiral’s too-restrained storylines here are clearly an unfortunate side effect of its ambitions toward a more venerated generic bent, which is an all the more confusing outcome given that the original film, released in 2004, materialized both within and parallel to this spirit and, in that sense, stands apart from its sequels.

Similarly strange is the fact that Bousman here served as the director for several of the films’ which took the franchise’s signature narrative chaos to its complete nadir — in many ways Saw III and IV came to embody the narrative anarchy the long-running franchise has become known for.

Perhaps it is less a matter of filmmaker and more of writer, seeing as Bousman’s previous entries were helmed by longtime Saw writers Leigh Whannell and Marcus Dunston and accompanied by a story credit from original Saw director and contemporary mainstream horror wunderkind James Wan.

Either way, the obvious irony of Spiral not knowing the rules of the world it has stepped into will not be lost on fans.

Spiral is now available on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes and the Cineplex Store.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.