Review: Spiral: From the Book of Saw

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

Stars: Chris Rock, Marisol Nichols, Max Minghella

The Saw franchise has evolved (devolved?) over the years. It’s easy to forget that the wheels and gears and 60 second timers that typified the later installments were all-but-absent in James Wan’s taught first film. Jigsaw himself, John Kramer (Tobin Bell), was killed off at the end of Saw III, but the series found ways – increasingly tenuous ways – of continuing his legacy. Through ever-more-bastardised hand-me-downs, the series’ irony-hewn justice managed to carry through, the blood-lust only amping up.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw – produced by and starring Chris Rock – throws out a lot of the franchise’s established calling cards. This is the first in the series that doesn’t bother wrestling a new link back to Kramer. It’s the first to almost completely shift the focus away from the would-be victims. No communal games this time. Even Billy the tricycle-bound puppet has been consigned to the scrapheap. For some, dispensing with a horror brand’s iconography is tantamount to sacrilege. But for evolution to happen, change is necessary.

But as much as trends have risen and fallen in the annals of Saw one thing has always been constant; dirty cops. This is true of every single film in the run. Be it the crooked antics of Eric Matthews (Donnie Wharlberg) or the dull and dreary legacy of Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). In Saw, it seems, ACAB. Be sure and remember that.

Chris Rock plays Detective Zeke Banks, a rare beacon of righteousness in Saw‘s grimy legacy. He’s the precinct’s smart-mouthed Serpico, vilified for turning on his former partner. When a fellow detective in the precinct is lured to his death in the city’s subway system by a Jigsaw copycat, Banks finds himself ensnared in a new ‘game’, while simultaneously breaking-in his new rookie partner, William Schenk (Max Minghella).

Spiral takes the trinkets of Saw and reconstitutes them for a serial killer procedural / whodunit. Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger’s script throws you plenty of suspects and red herrings, and early doors its fun to play their guessing game, evoking similar feelings to those first run-throughs with the Scream movies… Except their story isn’t quite as clever as they think it is. The culprit here is all-too-guessable. Nevertheless, it’s a new angle for Saw and, after eight movies, a welcome one.

That said, while the POV may be new for this series, it’s certainly not new to movies. Spiral runs head-long into as many cop movie clichés as it can muster. Banks’ daddy is chief of police, for instance (and Samuel L Jackson of all people!), and there’s the whole old dog/young pup dynamic of literally any buddy movie. Spiral throws the Jigsaw paraphernalia into quite another tried and tested formula.

Behind the camera, we find Darren Lynn Bousman (director of Saw II, Saw III and Saw IV) returning to the scene of the crime. Aesthetically, Spiral takes the series back to his frenetic playbook. All juddering edits and music video fast-forward. Trashy and out-dated as his tics may be now, they at least create a visual link to the films that came before. Without them this might all just seem like Saw cosplay.

One senses that none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for Chris Rock; a devoted fan of the series, who seems to have willed himself into this belated resurrection. His Banks is very much an extension of his stand-up persona; foul-mouthed, contemptible of women, blithe about who he may or may not offend. And with that hair-trigger temper. A lot of this blowhard shtick makes its presence felt in the first half hour. But Rock seems to settle into the role well and, ultimately, he leads the film just fine. Between this and season 4 of Fargo, his presence as An Actor could gain traction.

If this is all an indulgence for Rock, then it could’ve been a lot worse. Spiral has been in hibernation, waiting for the reopening of cinemas shuttered for months due to the pandemic. For those with the disposition, this is a sturdy if dispensable popcorn flick to test out those great multiplex cathedrals once more. It isn’t as frequently grizzly as the Saw of old – due to the change in perspective – but it still manages to bring on the squirms here and there. The traps are a mix of the elaborate, the laughable and the morbidly inspired.

While Spiral has been biding its time waiting for release, tensions between the police and populous have risen globally. Be it George Floyd, be it Sarah Everard… cries for the de-funding of these failing institutions are louder than they’ve ever been. Spiral accidentally totters along a strange political  tightrope, eager to both lionise the police force with one breath, and condemn it with another. It’s tonally, even thematically a little confused, but it does reflect an overwhelmingly cancerous system… one that our new Jigsaw aims to rehabilitate with the aid of a rusting, jagged edge.

I may have been wooed a little by the romance of returning to the cinema… but Spiral mostly sat just fine with me, especially given some of the cinematic atrocities this series has already dolled out over the years. It’s good to be back.

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