Although a few of the nine "Saw" movies have been good, they've usually been where acting careers go to die (and get disemboweled). Big names have generally avoided the series. One way the latest entry, "Spiral," distinguishes itself is by showcasing Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson, performers whose careers have not yet been decapitated.
Rock conceived this movie, subtitled "From the book of Saw," although his concept isn't as fresh or surprising as the ones that mark the best in the gruesome franchise. In each, a judgmental but creative sadist named Jigsaw devises elaborate traps to punish wrongdoers in viciously specific ways, such as a liar getting his tongue ripped out. Jigsaw died a few movies ago but his methods live on in a new killer, who targets crooked cops, in "Spiral."
Several movies have explored that idea already but "Spiral" wants to capitalize on recent stories of police gone bad, which gives it a queasy feeling beyond the one viewers expect to get in movies where people are ripped apart. "Saw" movies have always toyed with the idea that we're torn between wanting victims to escape and believing, to some extent, that they deserve their fates. But the pseudo-topical element in "Spiral" distracts from the suspense because this does not seem like the right place to debate police accountability.
Beyond that, it's an effective "Saw." Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed "Saws II-IV," obviously knows this territory, navigating efficiently from one crime scene to the next and including a clever callback to the first "Saw" that fans will appreciate.
Rock, as a second-generation officer navigating an uneasy relationship with his dad (Jackson), is much more authoritative here than he was on the most recent season of "Fargo," effectively conveying the costs of a job that brings him in contact with evil just about every day. And Jackson's casual wit is always welcome.
The rest of the cast is not as strong but maybe that's not such a bad thing. Most of them won't be around long, anyway.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: R for gruesome violence, strong language and drugs.
Theater: Wide release.