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Even if you’ve never seen one of the previous installments in the long-running Saw franchise (there have been eight prior to Spiral), there’s a good chance you have absorbed the basic gist of the series. There once was an ingenious serial killer named John Kramer, who went by the nickname Jigsaw. Kramer conceived elaborate games, or “traps,” for his victims, ones which were inspired by a specific vice or crime committed by the individual. Most Saw films also promise a twist, though they came with varying degrees of predictability.
All of those elements can be found in Spiral, which marks the return of veteran Saw director Darren Lynn Bousman (he helmed Saw II, Saw III and Saw IV before passing the bloody baton) and injects fresh blood via some very famous faces. But even with the high-profile changes made to a movie subtitled From the Book of Saw, this all feels like familiar, dog-eared pages in a well-worn novel. A few surprises await, but Spiral can’t distance itself from the Saw franchise’s trappings, so the sequel doesn’t elevate itself beyond the middle of the Saw pack.
The new traps in Spiral are elaborate, and extremely grotesque.
I hear you. You aren’t turning up to the ninth Saw movie looking for Shakespearean drama, or the delicate, mature touch of a Paul Thomas Anderson period drama. You want Spiral to deliver intricate traps that appear to make numerous victims incredibly uncomfortable, and from its opening sequence to its very last shot, the movie delivers. At least two of the traps featured in Spiral caused me to look away before they’d run their course, which -- in this universe -- is a vote of confidence in the skill level of the production team.
The kills in Spiral are as ludicrous as they are bloody… which is to say, very ludicrous. No part of the body is safe once Darren Lynn Bouseman starts to initiate the devices that are being deployed by a Jigsaw copycat. And there are plenty of willing victims surrounding our lead character, Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), so that the new killer unleashed in Spiral has plenty of opportunity to get creative.
Spiral shows a different side of Chris Rock, though you’ll kind of wish he’d stuck with comedy.
Yes, I did say that Detetive Zeke Banks is played by legendary stand-up Chris Rock. Apparently Rock realized he had unexpected downtime while waiting for the next cushy Adam Sandler gig, so he opted to flex a new acting muscle as the lead in a Saw spinoff.
It doesn’t suit him. Zeke has one mood: Angry. Years before this story took place, Zeke reported a crooked cop, and has worn a target on his back from his colleagues in blue, despite all efforts made by his police captain father, Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), to turn down the heat. Sick of the constant pressure he gets from fellow cops, and saddled with a rookie partner (Max Minghella) he has no interest in training, Zeke appears to have no option than to lash out at anyone and everyone surrounding him.
There are plenty of fascinating actors who could make Zeke’s personality work on screen. Chris Rock is not one of them. It’s perfectly fine to hire Rock to be the lead in a Saw movie. Reportedly, he’s a massive fan of the franchise, and requested that Lionsgate create a new Saw story that he could lead. Terrific. But why not tailor Zeke to Chris Rock’s strengths? Outside of a funny improvised bit about Forrest Gump that opens the movie, Rock’s never permitted to show any emotion outside of frustration. It plays well when he’s barking at Jackson in their shared scenes (there aren’t many), but wears on you once you realize this is all that Rock’s bringing to this table.
The Book Of Saw follows the Saw playbook to the letter.
Bringing the Saw franchise back could have, and should have, been an invitation to completely reinvent the brand. Take it to completely new levels. Re-establish what Saw can mean for a new generation of horror audiences who no longer are as interested in the torture-horror that was prevalent when James Wan and Leigh Whannell launched this franchise nearly 18 years ago. Look how Wan and Whannell have evolved in their storytelling methods. I thought Spiral might end up being closer in tone and execution to a Conjuring sequel, or Whannell’s brutally effective The Invisible Man.
Nope. Spiral feels like all of the other Saw movies, afraid to rock the boat too much and content to deliver exactly what the audience likely expects from it. The traps and gruesome, and there’s a good twist waiting for those who take this ride. But if Spiral was meant to be the launch pad of a new Jigsaw-inspired killer carrying his or her own franchise, my interest in that endeavor has spiraled down the drain.