Spiral: A Fresh Spin on Jigsaw's Twisted Past
While some may argue that Spiral is just a cop drama wearing the decomposed skin of Saw, Chris Rock’s passion project is an undeniably fun, worthy return to the world of Jigsaw – even if the long-running franchise still can’t help but make the same mistakes.
In Hollywood, no franchise is truly dead. There’s always more money to mine from the very depths of human depravity – a mantra that Lionsgate has leaned on heavily for the last 17 years. Over the course of a decade, the studio pumped out seven Saw films over seven Halloween seasons, ever-so-slowly reaching new lows (or highs) in their never-ending journey to murd – err, sorry, force bad people into hard choices – through the lens of moral ambiguity. But tack on Jigsaw, a solid soft-reboot-not-quite-sequel entry from 2017, and the Saw franchise has earned nearly $980 million worldwide.
So, just like John Kramer, a return from the dead was simply inevitable. Still, this is the first movie that doesn’t put the iconic killer right in the crosshairs for the 90-minute runtime. Aside from a few glancing photos and an homage to the original flick, Spiral: From the Book of Saw doesn’t dare exhume the ghosts of the twisty, retconned lineage. Believe it or not, this is great news for loyal fans.
Zeke Banks (Rock) is a loose cannon officer, often forced to work on his own after turning in a dirty cop years earlier. Following an improvised drug bust gone sideways, Banks is partnered up with William Schenk (Max Minghella), a rookie detective, just as a string of gruesome murders hit town. While Rock’s paint-by-the-numbers crooked police throughline isn’t all that compelling, the playground that the legendary comedian has created with director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV) brings new life into the usual washed-out dungeon settings of Saws past.
We’re here for the traps and twists though – and thankfully, Spiral (for the most part) nails them both.
Although the trap-to-plot ratio is at a noticeable all-time low, the four or so that appear are all winners, including a revolting finger-yanking device that’ll make even the most-weathered horror enthusiasts squirm. As reported, the gore is ultimately dialed down here – but Spiral still moves at a breakneck speed, bouncing from scene to scene without hesitation, an added benefit of Bousman's confident veteran leadership. The twist finale is not a series-high – Saw I and Saw II still own that title – nevertheless, it at least adds up in a satisfying manner, a feat that few of the late franchise entries pulled off.
(Notably, and perhaps most unfortunately, the replacement for Billy the Puppet is a total misstep, a helium-guzzling pig marionette that feels more like a parody than tribute.)
Elsewhere, a meal has been made of Rock’s acting chops already, but he’s a bright spot in a script otherwise full of tropes from every other police movie in existence. Sure, Rock spews a hearty handful of those cliches himself, but there’s an energy and spirit to the hunt that’s been absent from Saw for so long. Samuel L. Jackson (playing the grizzled father and station chief) and Minghella do well with their supporting roles, deputizing as polarizing foils to Rock’s high-octane performance. However, the rest of the police department feels too one-note, caricatures that only serve as livestock fodder when the killer picks them off for past crimes – like lying on the stand, gunning down an innocent witness, or protecting their dishonest co-workers.
Truth be told, unlike the blurry, morally gray line that Kramer often blended with ease during the early aughts of Saw, plenty of viewers will end up fiercely rooting for the murderer here. Of course, Rock includes some timely social commentary on the corrupt justice system at large – ‘cops shoot first, ask questions later’ is an actual line from the script – but the blunt attempt at addressing real societal issues is nearly lost by the time the bloody climax rolls around.
All in all, Spiral is an exciting return to the silver screen – if not one still imperfect at the edges. If you squint hard enough, it might even look like a Dollar Store Se7en and there are far worse ways to spend two hours at the theater. Longtime fans might leave disappointed at how little the newest addition connects to the previous eight-movie lore, but Spiral mostly stands on its own sewer-bound, pig-faced, and tongue-trapped feet.