There are plenty of schlocky film franchises that illustrate the Hollywood truth that movies don’t have to be very good to reliably make money, as long as audiences get what they came for. In the case of the Saw movies, initiated by James Wan and Leigh Whannell in 2004, that would be gratuitous torture porn with a shocking third-act twist. This formula has functioned for nine movies now, with varying degrees of effectiveness, while never straying much beyond the bottom end of the quality spectrum following the first film’s low budget but genuinely clever reveal. Now, in Spiral, the filmmakers make a ploy for launching what seems designed to be a spinoff franchise: a copycat movie about a copycat killer.

While Spiral does contain a juicy twist, it’s no spoiler to reveal that the murder-mastermind is no longer Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw character, who was killed off in an earlier movie. The famous clown puppet on a tricycle does not appear either, but there is a pig-faced marionette to fill that slot. What initially sets Spiral apart from its predecessors is the involvement of Chris Rock, who takes on the role of straight-arrow detective Zeke Banks. Rock, an avowed Saw fan, reportedly pitched the film’s story and takes an executive producer credit, with Saw veteran Darren Lynn Bousman directing. But while Rock brings a touch of gravitas to the production in the form of some hardboiled cop drama, the film doesn’t stretch very far away from its blood-soaked roots, as signaled by the film’s goofy subtitle: From the Book of Saw.

Of course, there are no books involved, but there are plenty of ominous audio recordings, grainy videos and mysterious packages, all containing clues about the killer’s victims and motives. The task of figuring out these puzzles requires Banks to deconstruct the wordplay in the clues, as if his police training involved intensive pun mastery. The killer, it seems, has a vendetta for crooked cops, not unlike Banks himself, who’s been shunned by his fellow officers for having turned in his previous partner for shooting an innocent man. His new partner, rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella), is the naive foil to Banks’ cynical gumshoe. All the precinct drama feels like an underwritten subplot from a Don Winslow novel, with the wild card turning up in the form of Samuel L. Jackson as Banks’ retired police chief father, Marcus. He’s embittered and crusty, and the few scenes that pair Jackson and Rock are the high points of the film. Frustratingly, the plot forces them apart for long stretches, interspersed with fiendishly graphic torture scenes as one bad cop after another falls victim to the pig-masked killer.

If you really want to watch a man’s tongue get yanked out of his throat, or someone’s fingers get pulled off, or someone’s face smothered in hot wax, then this is the film for you. It’s all here and more, with buckets of blood, and while the tone and score of Spiral feel grimmer and grittier than the funhouse vibe of some of the earlier films, it’s just as clear that the unblinking depiction of the suffering and death of helpless victims is the real point of the movie. Awkwardly insistent flashbacks fill in the story once the killer’s identity is revealed, sapping the story’s momentum at key points, while potentially interesting questions about the consequences of there being so many bad apples in the police force are never really explored.

What does it say about our society that even a depraved serial killer is disgusted by the behavior of American cops? Rock, whose comedy on social issues has been so brilliant and incisive, is mostly wasted in scene after scene where he has little to do but react to circumstances while looking grim. His move into dramatic acting was better served in the most recent season of “Fargo,” where his charisma glimmered through cool restraint. If Rock is looking to follow the Liam Neeson path into reinventing himself as a late-career action hero, he might want to hone his unique set of skills on better material. For that matter, Spiral‘s killer might be better off designing amusement park rides or Rube Goldberg machines for elaborate stage productions. Unfortunately, they’re probably just going to make more of these movies.

Unfortunately, they're probably just going to make more of these movies.
30 %
Bloody copycats
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