Synopsis: Working in the shadow of an esteemed police veteran, brash Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks and his rookie partner take charge of a grisly investigation into murders that are eerily reminiscent of the city’s gruesome past.
Stars: Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, Morgan David Jones, Frank Licari, Zoie Palmer
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: Sure, I’ve seen all of the films in the Saw series but with that particular franchise, it truly is a case where the old saying is true: when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Though I enjoyed the original film from 2004 for its brazen methods of going all-out in its gory violence and clever narrative construction, the subsequent sequels were each like a new dub of the previous copy taken from an existing VHS master. Each new entry got more and more distorted, the plots more convoluted, the acting less convincing, and the overall threads that tied the series together started to grow threadbare and snap. By the time Saw: The Final Chapter sliced through theaters in 2010 (in 3D, natch), the viscous well had long since dried up. When Jigsaw, a feeble attempt to shock the series back to life in 2017 during the swell of reboots failed to wake the dead, it seemed as if the plug had officially been pulled on the Saw franchise.
What happened next was a surprise to many. Shortly after Jigsaw’s disappointing debut, Lionsgate found out they had a Saw fan in comedian Chris Rock and it just so happened the star was looking to get into the horror business. Accepting Rock’s offer to provide a treatment to take the franchise on a new path, the studio lined up Saw II, III, and IV’s Darren Lynn Bousman (Mother’s Day) to direct and hired Piranha 3DD writers Josh Stolberg & Pete Goldfinger to flesh out Rock’s original storyline into the full feature length version that became known as Sprial. Tacking From the Book of Saw onto the title to fully tie the new film to the existing world confirmed Spiral would be related to the original eight films and not a reboot, and suddenly the internet was abuzz wondering how Rock and newly announced co-star Samuel L. Jackson would work their way into the Saw universe.
Delayed from it’s October 2020 release due to the pandemic, Lionsgate opted to hold off on letting their twisted game out of the bag until now and it’s good they did because the Saw films are always something of an event to see on the big screen. (Note: I say that with full acknowledgement of the hypocrisy of my watching it via a screening link at home.) Now, audiences would be forced to witness some of the series most gruesome death devices going full bore and wouldn’t be able to simply leave the room like they could if they viewed it from the safety of their living room. Spiral was promised to be a film that was more of a mystery than the ghastly Grand Guignol torture nastiness the previous eight films had begun to wallow in. What a bummer to report that it’s more than a little disappointing to see before the title card is even shown a man forced to choose between ripping out his own tongue or death by subway train.
Labeled a rat by his colleagues after testifying against his crooked partner, Detective Zeke Banks (Rock, The Witches) is going through a divorce and has a strained relationship with his father (Jackson, Shaft), a former police captain of his division. Assigned by his ball-busting captain (Marisol Nichols, Scream 2) to mentor rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella, The Internship) their first case is a doozy: identifying a homeless man run over by a train using only the bloody pieces that were salvageable. Having seen the prologue, we know these fleshy bits used to be someone quite different and the two detectives will soon receive their first clue from a creepy killer in a pig mask that will point them in the right direction.
Once Banks and Schenk discover the man was a cop that Banks knew well, the dominos start to fall rapidly as other members from their precinct start to die in all sorts of terrible manners. Could this be the workings of another disciple of the long-dead killer Jigsaw or is there a copycat using the murderers methods as a cover to enact their deadly game of revenge? With clues pointing to suspects that wind up mincemeat, Banks is left to read between the lines and remember the past if he’s to save himself and his loved ones from a killer’s deadly plans for the future.
Had Stolberg and Goldfinger’s script stuck to the mystery angle, Spiral could have been an interesting film that benefitted from its ham-fisted bit of social commentary it clumsily thumbtacks on at the end. (Oh, it’s so stagnant you’ll groan.) I get the feeling Rock’s original idea was far less grandiose than what Spiral turned out to be and it took the extra attention of the writers (and maybe Bousman) to make this new film fit more into the lore of the Saw films. How else could you explain some of the random shifts in tone from detective story to the grisly reveling in brutalization? With the previous movies, this was expected because past the second sequel they truly had no central story that made them a mystery worth solving. Bringing in Bousman also accounts for the movie having the look of a Saw film as well, with the jittery camera angles and overall grimy feel that permeated the vibe of earlier entries…there’s little to set this one apart from the others. Bringing someone new in, like Universal did with the 2018 Halloween, would have been an inspired choice, though Bousman is no slough as a filmmaker.
It also just has to be said that for as brilliant a comedian as Rock is and as gifted a performer he is onstage, an actor he is most definitely not. Rock’s performance is possibly the biggest problem with the film, aside from its profound reliance on useless profanity (and this is coming from someone with a sailor’s vocabulary), and in scene after scene he drags every other actor down just as they are trying to bring him up. Not even Jackson can rescue Rock from himself, mostly because for all the attention his casting received, Jackson is barely in the movie. The character is just unpleasant. In the process of creating a new direction for the series, did no one remember to think up a leading man that audiences would enjoy as well?
Even the solution to Spiral is met with sort of a indifference and the typical zip-zap-here-are-the-closing-credits wrap-up. As much as the star, filmmakers, and studio touted Spiral as being different than what has come before, it is shockingly stuck in the past and falls into the same trap as the later sequels when the franchise was already on tenuous ground. I expected a great deal more from all involved and if it’s true like one character says everything is in a spiral and comes back around, I’m hoping the next film really does return to what captured our attention back in 2004 when the game being played required more brains than…well, literal brains.