All good things must come to an end, and as the “Saw” series demonstrated a decade ago, that’s true of not-so-good things as well. “Saw: The Final Chapter,” released in 2010, was supposed to be the last installment of the dismemberment-comes-to-the-megaplex franchise — a resolution that the producers stuck to for seven years. (In sequel terms, that’s a lifetime.) Inevitably, they had a relapse, but “Jigsaw” (2017), starring Tobin Bell as the Rube Goldberg torture-device serial killer who was supposedly long dead, was less a reboot than a delayed denouement, one that was greeted with very little fan enthusiasm. After eight movies, half a billion dollars at the box office, and too many gruesomely head-spinning, limb-severing mechanical-violence “games” to count, the series, like most of its victims, seemed ready to be put out of its misery.
But now we have “Spiral,” subtitled “From the Book of ‘Saw.'” In its “How can we make the old sick trash new again?” way, the ninth film in the series isn’t just another attempt to squeeze this bloody lemon dry. It takes an actual stab at reimagining the “Saw” franchise.
The movie features a new faceless torture maniac — though he’s really just a Jigsaw copycat, with new insignia (a nod to the twirly red flourish that decorated the Jigsaw puppet’s cheeks), a new voice (he sounds like the world’s most disaffected tech geek), and a new video mascot (a grotesque pig mask hung from wires). The big change, though, is that while “Spiral” features a handful of the series’ how-much-pain-will-you-inflict-on-yourself-to-save-yourself? dungeon-nightmare set pieces (in the first of these, a man with a clamp through his tongue must decide whether to rip the tongue out of his mouth in order to avoid a speeding subway train), the movie is framed as a conventional police-corruption thriller.
It stars Chris Rock, and with his seething, embattled performance as Zeke Banks, a homicide detective who’s odd man out in the department because he’s the only cop in sight who hasn’t lost his integrity, Rock completes his transformation from comedian to actor who lacks even a whisper of his former cheeky ebullience; he’s all brutish insults and glaring resentment. At the site of that first hellacious murder, Zeke learns that the victim was a dirty cop — one who routinely lied on the witness stand. (That’s why he was given a lesson in how to use his tongue.) Zeke gets put in charge of a task force to hunt down the killer, and along with his eager-to-please rookie partner (Max Minghella), he is sent on a kind of gross-out scavenger hunt, which keeps turning up Tiffany-blue boxes that contain hideous clues in the form of severed body parts belonging to cops.
Is this all connected, somehow, to Zeke’s father (Samuel L. Jackson), who once ran the department and still looms over it? “Spiral” takes an unexpected twist or two, but considering that its lead actor is Black and that it’s a thriller pegged to the issue of police immorality, the film confronts that theme in a weirdly untopical, almost garishly generic way. How are the deaths? A man in a tub avoids electrocution by flipping on a machine that pulls his fingers off; a woman will drown in hot wax unless she leans back to sever her spinal cord. Yes, these are life lessons! And no, the “Saw” series hasn’t really changed. So depending on whether you’re a fan or not, eat up…or throw up.