One of the biggest curiosity items of 2020 has arrived a year later and, depending on how excited one is about Saw IX, it will either appeal to the fanbase or nauseate newbies. There is something so fascinating about seeing Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson and Max Minghella in this, just as it would be impossible to resist a Halloween sequel starring Bill Murray and Michael Fassbender. The thing is, while this is very entertaining and starts off strong, it’s not up the level of the cast, who are basically scraping the same bottom as series regulars Donnie Wahlberg, Costas Mandylor and Shawnee Smith.
Rock stars as Zeke, a cop with a lot of reasons to be so on edge: everyone in his department is corrupt and despises his moral center. Zeke’s father (played by Jackson) is a career policeman but also a bully and a distant presence. Then there’s the series of murders that pop up, all seemingly done by disciples of the long deceased but still dangerous Jigsaw. Zeke is paired with a new partner (played by Minghella) and the two begin their investigation by checking out a crime scene where the victim is in pieces strewn everywhere.
The first sign that this is not going to be a great movie comes in the flashbacks, where Rock and Jackson sport some of the all-time worst facial hair in cinema. I know this is a low budget movie but watching the stars slum it in trick or treat-ready, dime store, stick on mustaches and beards is not promising. Neither are the overdone flashbacks in general, a franchise standard every bit as obnoxious as the sped-up zooms around the victims, screeching jump scares and juicy close ups of all the gushy stuff.
It’s either admirable or just a shame that Rock and his over-qualified co-stars are truly in a Saw movie that hasn’t been watered down for mainstream appeal. Although Jordan Oram’s cinematography has more color and less cold industrial bleakness than prior entries, this has all the hallmarks of the series. If you’re a fan, there’s something undeniably fresh about this, particularly the infusion of humor early on. If you’re not up on all things John Kramer, here’s one of the better entries of a rotten franchise that has lifted sucker money from fans of “torture porn” since 2004.
Rock is very good in this, though its neither a dramatic breakthrough nor a vibrant comedic turn that we’d hope for. Jackson is barely doing anything different from what he did in the lousy Shaft sequel from a summers ago and Minghella succeeds just by playing, by a wide margin, the most likable character in the film. Alert cinephiles will note the shout out to both Pulp Fiction and Rock himself tossing off a reference to New Jack City, the now-30-years-old crime classic that gave him his first dramatic role.
A scene with weaponized shards of glass is the film’s most memorable and (literally) impactful. Otherwise, there’s little to distinguish this Se7en wannabe from all the others from the late 1990’s. As far as the series goes, this is better than Saw 6-7 and on par with the surprisingly interesting Jigsaw, though not a franchise redeemer like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994).
A sequence where a woman must either choose between being burnt alive by hot wax or paralyzing her spine was the one that crossed the line for me. Even for a horror movie, it’s just sick. I despise the so-called “torture porn” sub-genre and have no nostalgia for the likes of Hostel, Captivity, Turistas or High Tension, let alone this franchise. Spiral succeeds at keeping this gross, involving and pulpy enough for even the casual audience member, willing to endure another gag-inducing set piece. Once we get to the big reveal of the ending, it has more showmanship than sense.
Overall, this is an interesting creative detour for Rock and a step up for a franchise that seemed to peak and flatline a long time ago. Despite arriving a year later, Spiral offers a timely critique of how cops abuse their power. It also opens with a man graphicly losing his tongue, which is why faint praise is all this is getting from me.