Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R, 1 hour 33 minutes
Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
Franchises that change course in order to stay fresh aren’t anything new or unique. But SPIRAL certainly embraces their latest pivot that, for better and worse, adds a twist on their typical formula. Franchise founder James Wan’s original played more as a thriller; however, the subsequent sequels adopted a grittier, darker, and more brutal tone. The horror series became better identified as “torture porn,” helping to pioneer and amplify that popular genre in the aughts. That movement’s prevalence came to a necessary conclusion once audiences were ready to move on – and yet that book was never really closed. There are always more chapters to write.
Director Darren Lynn Bousman’s series rebirth is a grimy mashup of a traditional police procedural combined with vulgar horror auteurism. Their refashioned spin on SEVEN is admirable in its aims, but lackluster in its execution – especially when the audience is ahead of the heady mind games being orchestrated. Though heavy on gore and brutally bleak in tone given the thematic statements made, there’s precious little tension, depth or cunning smarts. The kills are superficial and literal, as are a few of the sentiments behind them. Yet the picture moves at a brisk pace, so despite piecing the puzzle together faster than its creators and characters, its swiftness is of value.
Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) is despised by most everyone in his department since ratting on his crooked, drug-addicted partner years prior. Captain Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols) barely tolerates his antics and arrogance. His colleagues leave dead rats in traps on his desk. He broke the unspoken code. Making professional matters worse, he’s also personally struggling, getting a divorce from his cheating estranged wife and living in the long shadow his father, respected retired Captain Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson). Thankfully, Zeke’s undercover sting operations keep him out of the office.
However, when his latest bust comes to an unexpectedly abrupt halt, he’s reassigned a new partner: wide-eyed, baby-faced William Schenk (Max Minghella). He and Banks mix like oil and water, yet the elder still finds the time to deliver sage personal wisdom. The pair pick up a gruesome new case involving an anonymous sadist whose grisly slaughters bear a resemblance to Jigsaw’s methodical murders. This copycat killer, who has been leaving spiral graffiti around his crime scenes, has a predilection for brutalizing and dismembering cops – and they’re picking off detectives in Banks’ department one by one.
Scares are scarce. There’s a gratuitous glee that powers the big set pieces, which feels right in line for the series, but the filmmakers don’t blend those efficiently and effortlessly with the mystery aspect. Mounting momentum from the crime scene discoveries is missing a significant amount of energy. The picture’s provocative political commentary remains at surface level, faltering when trying to cut deeper. Perhaps the most shocking thing about SPIRAL is how easy it is to figure out the villain’s identity. Red herrings and misdirects don’t add up to much except to make us wonder if Zeke is actually a bad detective for not spotting the glaring dead giveaways.
Bousman, along with screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger, find time for Rock to deliver short bursts of stand-up material in between the schlock and dramatics – like his riff on FOREST GUMP, or womens’ daily activities being coded terminology for cheating. They also briefly tap into levity with his rhythmic repartee with Jackson, despite the obtuse, serious score doing the scene and the actors a disservice. His chemistry with Minghella is another strength. Their dynamic puts a refreshing twist on the traditional “old timer and rookie” subgenre. But while Rock is an inspired choice to lead the horror hijinks, his performance on the whole is all over the place and difficult to track.
With a proliferation of expositional dialogue, dreary thrills and a transparent mystery, the missteps are overwhelming. It’s not enough to completely close the book, nor is it enough to get us to keep reading.
SPIRAL is now playing.