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Spiral Review: Hurts So Good

When "Spiral" begins, the first thing you see is the old familiar "Twisted Pictures" logo – wrapped in barbed wire, an ominous spike tightening around the letters. It's hard not to be flooded with emotions — primarily anxiety and terror, of course, but also memories of how revolutionary the "Saw" series felt when it came out in 2004. These were movies that never seemed to go where you'd expect, that made you watch between your fingers, that had you leaving the theater feeling less like a viewer and more like a survivor.

After about two and a half really solid movies, the series rapidly went downhill, reaching its nadir with 2017's unwatchable "Jigsaw." But now, thanks to some considerable star power and a clever script that shifts the series' ... um, trappings ... onto a timely target, "Saw" finally seems to have got its groove back.

First and foremost, any review of "Spiral" needs to mention the injection of Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson, two beloved stars who have rarely (if ever) participated in horror movies and would traditionally be considered far too in demand to appear in the ninth installment of a torture porn series typically populated by unknowns (and the occasional Cary Elwes sighting). Rock has said he doesn't see this as a "Saw" movie, that it is intended to be a starting over, and the film certainly succeeds in that regard.

Rock plays Detective Zeke Banks, the kind of "clean cop" that rubs all his co-officers the wrong way and is always being lectured about his disrespect for "the code." Jaded and world-beaten, Zeke starts the film being forced to take on a new partner (Max Minghella from "The Handmaid's Tale"), whose youth and eagerness towards their caseload is a mismatch — even if they do share an enthusiasm for transparent, honest police work.

Zeke's father is Marcus Banks (Jackson), a retired police chief known for cleaning up the streets with grey-area efforts that got the job done. Many of his former lieutenants continue to populate the precinct, and they all seem to share three things: A loathing for Zeke, a reverence for his dad, and knowing glances between each other that indicate they're up to no good.

Look past the blood and guts, the severed tongues and the pits of doom, and a "Saw" movie is as much a whodunit as anything Agatha Christie ever wrote. Kill somebody in the first act, introduce all the suspects, then keep eliminating characters until our protagonist gets to the truth.

Get these spirals off my plane!

With "Spiral," cops from this corrupt precinct are being picked off one by one, and everybody seems to have a motive. While you might guess who is going to die next, it's darn near impossible to deduce the fireworks of revelations in the film's third act. Even if you need to look away during the inevitable torture devices that arise every ten minutes or so, you'll find yourself looking back quickly to keep track of the unfurling mystery.

Certain elements will be very familiar: The dark rooms bathed in blue, the scenes where people in pig masks kidnap their victims — who then wake up inextricably trapped within some unholy torture porn device requiring them to remove a body part if they hope to survive. Staticky TVs, herky-jerky editing, the "play me" tapes, camera shots that speed up intermittently to make you uncomfortable — it's all here.

Other elements won't be so familiar: Actors who can act, who seem to be having fun and are confident enough in their talents to build characters worth caring about. Chris Rock's first scene has him riffing on "Forrest Gump," cracking jokes about the Tom Hanks classic in what feels like a monologue from his comedy act — as does a later speech about fading marriages and infidelity. "You can give a woman 600 Tuesdays," Zeke tells his young partner. "It ain't worth three Saturday nights."

Samuel L. Jackson has always put a little something extra into the roles he really enjoys — think "Snakes on a Plane," "Shaft" or "Deep Blue Sea" — and he seems to once again be fully engaged by a new genre toy box with which to play. Not only does he get plenty of opportunity to scream the four-syllable catchphrase for which he's most famous, but it seems likely he was thrilled by the direction in which his character goes. Unfortunately, Jackson and Rock only get one real scene together, and it feels so loosely written that it's intoxicating watching the two men riff off each other about pizza slices. That scene alone is a breath of fresh air in a franchise that has spent the last six movies spinning its sadistic wheels.

In its best moments, "Spiral" feels like a movie finally freed from its franchise expectations. One inspired sequence has Rock's Zeke pulling up to a drug house, comparing the situation to "New Jack City" — and then going undercover to get inside by channeling the Chris Rock character in "New Jack City." It's a meta scene on par with "Being John Malkovich." Rock even makes throwaway lines worth keeping, like when Zeke loans his phone to Minghella's younger character and remarks, "Don't drain my battery watching 'Twilight.'"

Which isn't to say "Spiral" is going to enter the horror pantheon alongside "The Exorcist," or even that it's any better than the first two "Saw" films. Some of the franchise's intrinsic shortcomings still plague it: stiff supporting players, doomed victims who never seem to realize that refusing to play along would throw a monkey wrench into Jigsaw's puzzle, little interest in exploring the grey areas of its victims' supposedly irredeemable acts.

The sprightly script will keep you guessing, however, and depending on your desire to do such things, you might be surprised by the cultural undertones you can find within "Spiral." Corrupt cops, police shootings, Black vs. white — yes, this is still a movie with a creepy puppet punishing people, but it's the first in the series that seems interested in tackling matters beyond its own bizarre cinematic trappings.

Says here the suspect's name is ... Sam the Butcher?

It's also the first to succeed without the specter of Tobin Bell's John Kramer hanging over it. As soon as the killings begin, we're told that it must be a copycat. At no point in the mystery are we led to believe that the original Jigsaw is still alive, or somehow back from the dead, and even that feels refreshing. Yeah, it's not nearly as scary to hear the "play me" videos narrated by a high-pitched, computer-modulated voice rather than Bell's gravely tones, but at least the "Saw" films are no longer entertaining reality-stretching claims that John Kramer set up all these "games" before he died.

Digging deeper into the "Spiral" plot machinations only risks giving things away, so let's instead focus on the element that keeps the fanbase coming back for more: the traps.

It's tempting to imagine that the "Saw" movies are 90% written by someone who concerns themselves with plot, dialogue and characters. Perhaps these screenwriters simply put "insert torture scene" here as placeholders, and then, when the script is finished, they bring it to an expert.

Imagine, if you will, some supremely deranged specialist in elaborate ways you could kill somebody. This guy — let's call him Twisted Ted — lives in a dungeon with a leaky faucet, eats nothing but dead mice, and spends a week alone with each script. His writing method principally consists of him talking to no one in particular, asking questions like: "What if you tied each of a guy's ten toes to ten different doorknobs that would all be slammed shut at the same time — unless he sawed off his own eyelids?" Naturally, Ted punctuates such questions with a maniacal laugh and a mental high-five.

Well, if any of that is true (and it's not), Twisted Ted has done some excellent work here. The opening torture (which involves a train and a tongue) and the second-to-last torture (shards of glass and a key) seem particularly worthy of a chef's kiss. The entire time you're watching "Spiral" you keep thinking there's no way an actor the caliber of Samuel L. Jackson or Chris Rock could actually climb into one of those contraptions ... or could they? Buy the ticket, play the tape, take the ride — you'll be glad you did. And for a few days afterwards, a bit jittery as well.