Review: ‘Spiral’ (2021), starring Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson

May 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chris Rock and Max Minghella in “Spiral” (Photo by Brooke Palmer/Lionsgate)

“Spiral” (2021) 

Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “Spiral” features a racially diverse cast (African American, white and Latino) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A police detective tries to find out who’s behind the serial killings of cops in his police department, as he reluctantly trains a rookie cop.

Culture Audience: “Spiral” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Saw” franchise and anyone who doesn’t mind watching gruesome horror flicks with flimsy plots.

Samuel L. Jackson in “Spiral” (Photo by Brooke Palmer/Lionsgate)

In this dreadful continuation of the “Saw” horror franchise, “Spiral” has a misguided mashup of Chris Rock doing stale stand-up comedy lines in a “torture porn” story that rips off elements of “Training Day” and “Shaft.” The results are messier than the movie’s bloody corpses. “Spiral” was directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed 2005’s “Saw II,” 2006’s “Saw III” and 2007’s “Saw IV,” with each sequel panned as worse than its predecessor. Therefore, it’s mind-boggling that people thought it would be a good idea to hand over the revival of the “Saw” franchise to a director who has been largely blamed for ruining the franchise the first time around.

The first “Saw” movie—released in 2004, directed by James Wan, and written by Leigh Whannell—is still considered the best in the series. Wan and Whannell are two horror movie masters who have proved their talent with several other critically acclaimed horror flicks, such as the first “Insidious” and “The Conjuring” movies. Wan and Whannell are credited with being executive producers of “Spiral,” but “executive producer” is a movie title that can bestowed on anyone who might have had a consulting role on the film but wasn’t involved in the day-to-day production decisions for the movie.

The unimaginative and lazy screenplay for “Spiral” was written by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger, a duo with a history of writing cheesy horror flicks, including 2017’s “Jigsaw” (another “Saw” movie) and 2010’s “Piranha 3D.” And even though “Spiral” can boast the star power of Rock and Samuel L. Jackson in its cast (they are the most famous actors so far to star in a “Saw” franchise movie), that doesn’t mean the quality of “Spiral” is better than most of the bottom-of-the-barrel “Saw” flicks. And besides, Rock and Jackson have been in plenty of other horrible movies, so their names alone don’t guarantee that a movie is going to be any good.

In “Spiral,” there’s a new serial killer on the loose. And this murderer has been targeting cops in a police department that employs detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks, played by Rock. The movie takes place in an unnamed big city in the United States. Jackson portrays Zeke’s father Marcus Banks, who’s the department’s retired police chief and who is considered to be a respected hero by the people who still work there. The same can’t be said of Zeke, who is treated like a traitor by his peers.

That’s because 12 years ago, as shown in flashbacks, Zeke turned in his cop partner Pete Dunleavy (played by Patrick McManus) for shooting and killing a murder witness in cold blood. Therefore, Zeke has been labeled a snitch, and he’s not very well-liked by most of the other cops on the staff. (In one of the movie’s early scenes, Zeke finds a dead rat in a mousetrap placed on his desk.) Not long after his testimony sent a fellow cop to prison 12 years ago, Deke was shot (maybe not accidentally) by an older detective colleague named O’Brien (played by Thomas Mitchell), and there’s still a lot of bad blood between Zeke and O’Brien.

“Spiral” shows from the opening scene that the killer is targeting cops. During a Fourth of July parade at night, a police detective named Marvin “Boz” Bozwick, who’s off-duty, spots a thief steal a woman’s purse, and he gives chase to the crook. The purse snatcher is dressed like Uncle Sam on stilts, which is a ridiculous way to be dressed if you’re a thief who wants to get away on foot and blend into a crowd. It’s an example of how moronic this story is.

The thief disappears into a manhole. And the next thing you know, someone wearing a pig’s mask ambushes Boz and captures him. Boz is next seen hanging from a torture device on some subway train tracks. And you know what that means: A train will be coming any minute. The torture device has Boz’s tongue locked up. The only way that he can possibly escape is if he tears himself away from the torture device, but that would mean his tongue would be ripped out in the process.

Every “Saw” movie has the murderer kidnapping people, setting up elaborate tortures for the kidnapping victims, and then sending a video or audio message to the captured person. The message explains how the captured person has a chance to escape and live, but only if some part of their body is dismembered. And there’s a time limit on how long the person has to escape before the torture mechanism will kill the victim. Usually, the person who’s been kidnapped has done something horrible and the kidnapping/torture is revenge for it.

Boz and his tongue have been targeted because he has a history of lying in court testimony, and his lies have sent innocent people to prison. A video monitor on the train tracks shows a message from the killer to Boz, to make sure that Boz knows the reason why he’s been chosen for this torture trap. “Spiral” shows which decision Boz makes in his life-or-death dilemma, but it’s not enough to save him, because he’s the movie’s first murder victim by the mystery serial killer.

In the “Saw” movies, the serial killer Jigsaw and his followers made video messages featuring a creepy male clownish puppet doll with red spirals on its cheeks. The doll would sometimes appear on a miniature tricycle and speak in a deep distorted voice that was genuinely unsettling. This doll became the “face” of the “Saw” franchise—more than mastermind serial killer Jigsaw (played by Tobin Bell)—and the red spiral became the killer’s signature. “Spiral” was originally titled “Spiral: From the Book of Saw.”

In “Spiral,” the figure who appears in the serial killer’s deadly video messages is a person wearing a black hood and a pig’s mask, with a higher-pitched, less menacing voice than Jigsaw. And frankly, this “Spiral” serial killer in the video messages looks like a reject villain from a “Star Wars” movie, as if a pipsqueak relative of Emperor Palpatine decided to put on a pig’s mask. There aren’t as many killings in “Spiral” as in other “Saw” movies because so much of “Spiral” is about Zeke running around doing a wiseass cop procedural.

Zeke is first seen by viewers of “Spiral” in a scene where he’s leading a group of three other undercover cops in a robbery of drug dealers. Zeke and his corrupt crew don’t get far because they’re busted by a team of other cops during the getaway. But even though Zeke’s supervisor Capt. Angie Garza (played by Marisol Nichols) yells at him for stealing money from drug dealers, nothing really happens to Zeke. It’s the first clue that Capt. Garza is corrupt. And you know what that means.

Unfortunately, too much of “Spiral” is about office politics in this police department, Zeke’s ego, and all of his whining when he’s ordered to do things that he doesn’t want to do. Because of Zeke’s pariah status in the department, he’s been working alone for quite some time. But Capt. Garza tells him after the robbery bust that Zeke has now been assigned to train a rookie partner.

Zeke reacts with this outburst: “Do I look like a fucking Jamaican nanny? Do I smell like jerk sauce and baby wipes? No!” And then he says in a terrible attempt at a Jamaican patois accent: “Me no want no partner!” But Zeke has no choice but to work with this 24-year-old rookie. His name is William Schenk (played by Max Minghella), an “eager beaver” type who says that Zeke’s cop work inspired William to join this particular police department.

Zeke is immediately rude and dismissive to William, who takes Zeke’s negative attitude in stride. In their first day working together, William talks about being a husband and father. He shows Zeke a photo of his wife Emma and their baby son Charlie. Zeke, who is in the process of getting divorced, is deeply cynical about cop marriages because he thinks most cops will end up having failed marriages.

Zeke tells William: “Nothing happier than a wife of a new detective. Nothing angrier than that same bitch 10 years later.” William replies, “Maybe it’s because you call them bitches.” Zeke snaps back, “I don’t say it to their face. It’s not like I’m Too Short.” When was this very outdated joke written? 1999? Because that’s around the last time rapper Too Short was relevant.

The predictable dynamic between Zeke and William is that of a bitter and corrupt older cop paired with an idealistic and “by the book” younger cop. It’s all very “Training Day,” the 2001 movie starring Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke with this exact same dynamic. “Training Day” was an Oscar-winning film. “Spiral” isn’t even memorably bad enough to be nominated for a Razzie Award.

Somehow, everyone in this police department is too dumb to notice that Boz hasn’t shown up for work. They only find out that Boz is dead when Zeke, William and two other police detectives named Fitch (played by Richard Zeppieri) and Kraus (played by Edie Inksetter) are called to a murder scene, and they find Boz’s mangled and bloody body on the train tracks. William looks like he’s about to vomit from the gory sight. Zeke quips, “If you’re going to throw up, don’t do it on the evidence.”

The serial killer in “Spiral” delivers clues in small, string-tied boxes that are sent by courier to the police department. The first delivery is a flash drive with a video of the killer (wearing the pig mask, of course) announcing that the next murder victims will be other cops in the police department, as revenge for their “sins.” The killer won’t name who’s on the hit list, so the entire department is on edge. Because red spirals were found at Boz’s murder scene and the killer seems to be following Jigsaw’s modus operandi, the cops think that this murderer is a Jigsaw copycat killer.

Zeke is enraged by Boz’s death because Boz was Zeke’s closest friend on the job. Zeke gets even angrier when Capt. Garza assigns Zeke’s nemesis O’Brien to be the lead detective on the case. Zeke takes Capt. Garza aside in a private meeting and begs her to change her mind because Zeke thinks he’s the best person to avenge Boz’s death by finding Boz’s murderer. Capt. Garza immediately agrees and makes Zeke the lead detective.

Zeke gets very territorial over wanting to be the one who finds the most evidence that will solve the case. And so, there’s more drama with Zeke trying to outdo Fitch, Kraus and O’Brien, by not sharing information with them. Zeke doesn’t think William is smart enough to get in his way, so he treats William like a tag-along flunky. These are examples of how the movie wastes time with the department’s office politics. This is supposed to be a horror movie, not a cop TV series.

Through surveillance footage, the purse snatcher whom Boz was seen chasing before Boz died is quickly identified as a meth addict named Benny Rice (played by Chad Camilleri), who becomes a prime suspect in Boz’s murder. Benny is already known to the local cops because of his drug activities. But, of course, this obvious suspect means that Benny isn’t the real killer, because even a predictable movie like this wouldn’t make it that easy for the cops to solve this case so early on in the film.

As for Zeke’s revered father Marcus, he isn’t in “Spiral” as much as some people might think he is, considering that Jackson shares top billing with Rock for this movie. Jackson starred in two “Shaft” movies—one in 2000 and one in 2019—and he’s just playing a version of his Shaft character in “Spiral.” In other words, there’s nothing new to see here with Jackson’s performance.

And you’d think that cops who know they’re being targeted by a serial killer would know how to increase their own security and self-protection. But no, that doesn’t happen in an insipid movie like “Spiral.” Pity the citizens of this city who rely on these cops for protection, because these bungling cops can’t even protect themselves.

In “Spiral,” Rock dials up his foul-mouthed, misogynistic persona several notches for his Zeke character in “Spiral,” to the point where this cop is much more irritating than the serial killer. “Spiral” is so smug in thinking that it’s better than it really is, that it even includes Zeke giving a self-serving shout-out to one of Rock’s early movies: the 1991 crime drama “New Jack City.” And there are parts of “Spiral” where Zeke’s shrieking and hollering look more like he’s doing a buffoon-ish parody akin to 1993’s “CB4,” another Rock movie from the early 1990s.

The horror in “Spiral” isn’t as creative as in previous “Saw” movies. And there’s no real intrigue in trying to solve the mystery of who the serial killer is, because the movie is so sloppily handled. It’s pretty easy to figure out who the killer is if you look at the killer’s motives and who would know when and where to attack the next victim. And a lot of viewers are going to really hate the abrupt ending of “Spiral.” It’s made very clear at the movie’s disappointing conclusion that, just like a has-been zombie that keeps rising from the dead, the “Saw” franchise isn’t going away anytime soon.

Lionsgate released “Spiral” in U.S. cinemas on May 14, 2021.