Spiral, review: more Saw, more mindless gore, and a wasted Samuel L Jackson

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Chris Rock stares death in the face in Spiral: From the Book of Saw - Brooke Palmer/Lionsgate
Chris Rock stares death in the face in Spiral: From the Book of Saw - Brooke Palmer/Lionsgate
  • Dir: Darren Lynn Bousman. Starring: Chris Rock, Max Minghella, Samuel L. Jackson, Marisol Nichols, Nazneen Contractor. 18 cert, 93 min

Seventeen years and seven sequels since the first Saw plunged us into a world of diabolical torture, karmic payback and daft screenwriting, the horror franchise returns to cinemas rebranded. This time it’s Spiral – “From the Book of Saw”, as the credits tell us with a weirdly Biblical ring. The plot takes the shape of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in an inner-city police department.

Not for nothing does a pig’s head keep popping up – variously worn as a mask or yammering away as a stick puppet – whenever the killer has a new attraction to unveil. This is not the series’s old mastermind Jigsaw, who technically died at the end of Saw III, and only managed to continue his japes with a lot of pre-recordings and mystery underlings to help out.

Instead, an unnamed copycat is at large, who has evidently studied the entire manual of Jigsaw’s cleverly disgusting murder methods, and sets about offing these cops in ways (a) tailored uniquely to the sins of each individual and (b) sufficiently different from Saw set-pieces gone by that the core audience won’t cry foul.

Navigating his way through this maze of red herrings and strewn chunks of human anatomy is, of all people, Chris Rock, whose idea this spin-off was. He plays a hardened homicide detective called Zeke Banks, who finds himself at the centre of the new case, along with his retired police-veteran father (Samuel L Jackson) and a rookie called Schenk (Max Minghella).

These are easily the biggest star names yet to step foot in the Saw universe, and a clear sign (along with a doubled budget) that the producers have still more longevity in their sights. To direct, they’ve hired the man responsible for Saws II, III and IV, Darren Lynn Bousman, who brings this right back into the same old dank wheelhouse, stylistically speaking.

If the original films owed a blatant debt to David Fincher’s Se7en, this one remortgages from the same lender. There are boxes with body parts being couriered to police HQ, acerbic banter between partners at crime scenes, and photography (far worse than Se7en’s) which is unduly enamoured of a putrescence filter. Everyone seems to be acting, or at least trying, through an oily sheen of sweat.

Rock puts his best foot forward, with a performance that starts as pure grizzled-cop stand-up routine, complete with a gratuitous skit on the non-wokeness of Forrest Gump. When he doubts that pilates exists except to provide daytime infidelity cover for randy wives, it’s such a Chris Rock riff you wonder how he didn’t pick up a script credit.

Alas, the plot defeats him. Once the killings are in motion, he can’t get through a scene without either yelling furiously or putting on the same sour, world’s-gone-crazy scowl. Meanwhile, there may be one or two post-Pulp-Fiction flicks in which the mighty Jackson had a more thankless part, but I’m currently struggling to think of any.

Fans of this series rarely sign up, let’s be honest, in the hope of unearthing an elegantly crafted whodunit. For all Bousman’s flash-cut editing trickery, you can spot the culprit here a mile off, and the finale is a flat, lame sop to cue up more sequels. Spiral, like all the old Saws, must regularly prostrate itself to lowest-common-denominator fan-service – namely, “is [insert contraption] gruesome enough”? Can we believe someone would rip out their own tongue to avoid a speeding train? And so on.

Jigsaw and his clones cast judgement on these morally compromised saps, but the filmmakers egg us on time and again to revel grimly in their agony, as if we were no better ourselves than cackling voyeurs at our hundredth witch-burning. “The last three traps weren’t gory enough” feels among the more depressing critical judgements I’ll ever bestow.

In cinemas from Monday