“And Justice for All,” the last four words of the American Pledge of Allegiance, sum up the dynamic of “Spiral: From the Book of ‘Saw,’” the ninth instalment of the “Saw” franchise, now playing in theatres.
On one hand you have a murderer dispensing their own brand of justice; inventively slaughtering people who have broken a twisted moral code known only to the killer. For instance, a detective who has lied on the stand many times, is given the choice, provide justice by tearing out his own lying tongue, or be killed. “Live or die. Make your choice.”
Then, there are the police who must use more traditional means to enforce their brand of justice.
It might not be exactly what Congress had in mind, but in the “Saw” universe there is more than one definition of the word justice.
Chris Rock is Zeke Banks, an idealistic-but-disillusioned big city detective trying to get out from under the shadow of his father Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), a decorated, hero cop and retired police chief. When Zeke and his partner, an eager rookie named William Shenk (Max Minghella), catch an unusual, grisly case, the game is afoot.
A new serial killer, playing from the same gamebook as the notorious villain Jigsaw, who put his victims through deadly scenarios he referred to as “games” or “tests,” is terrorizing the city’s dirty cops, looking to avenge wrongs perpetrated by the South Metro Police and “reform” the department. “A Jigsaw copycat,” says Marcus. “That could be difficult.”
As the bodies pile up Zeke suspects the killer isn’t just playing around, that he has another motive. Something personal.
After eight instalments of the “Saw” franchise, countless deadly traps and one iconic baddie, “Spiral” finds a newish way in to tell an old story. Billy the Puppet and Jigsaw are gone, as is much of the gore that splattered the screen in earlier incarnations of the series. They’ve been replaced with a timely but underdeveloped subtext regarding police corruption and the addition of humor, an element often sorely lacking from previous instalments.
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, who helmed the second, third and fourth “Saw” movies, “Spiral” is as character based as it is consequence based. Bousman, and “Jigsaw” screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger, have dialed back the grim stuff. There are still enough traps and gore to keep “Saw” purists happy—there’s a finger ripping machine and some nasty hot wax—but an increased emphasis on character raises the stakes so the gory stuff has more impact. It’s still a horror film, but Bousman structures it like a thriller, even if his reliance on flashbacks and exposition mutes some of the thrills.
There’s also loads of uninspired hard-boiled dialogue and lots of yelling but also just enough of the nasty stuff and deadly game playing to keep fans satisfied.
The spiral logo that gives the movie its name is supposed to be emblematic of change and progress, but the movie doesn’t quite live up to the symbol’s meaning. It shakes some of the dust off the old franchise without reinventing it or doing justice to it.