The Pitch: It’s been a decade since John Kramer, aka Jigsaw, spent years terrorizing unsuspecting citizens with a dizzying, disgusting array of homespun torture traps meant to enact karmic justice for their personal failings. Now, a copycat is on the loose, and this time he’s targeting crooked cops, with a mission to “reform the police” (more on that later) and purge it of its corruption. Hot on the case is an idealistic but disillusioned cop named Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), the son of the department’s former chief (Samuel L. Jackson), already a pariah for turning in a crooked cop several years prior. Now he and his fresh-faced new partner (Max Minghella) are tapped to track down who’s dispatching their fellow officers in increasingly mechanical and grisly ways, and hope they don’t end up in the crosshairs.
Everybody Hates Chris: Having now seen Spiral, I can safely say that I still have no idea what “The Book of Saw” refers to — but it sure does sound like a nifty way to give the long-running torture porn franchise a veneer of respectability and prestige, which Spiral feels like it’s going for. To its credit, it elevates itself, particularly in the first half, with some inspired stunt casting: Rock, Minghella, and Jackson (despite his zeal to do everything from Marvel to Capital One commercials) are a big step up from the Canadian day players of the previous entries in the series. It’s a nifty byproduct of the whole thing coming from Rock’s desire to make a Saw movie: Watching Rock stalk warehouses and police offices, Spiral feels at least a little bit like Rock’s Saw fan film.
To his credit, Rock throws himself into the scowling seriousness of the role, though sometimes his instincts seem to miscalculate a bit. In some scenes, he’s rattling off Tarantino-esque monologues about Forrest Gump and referencing New Jack City (a film in which he stars) like he’s in one of his standup routines; in others, he’s barking orders at his fellow cops and dashing from one place to the next in full hero-cop mode. While he’s still a capable lead, that’s often more down to his innate charisma than the demands and direction of the part.
Cop Trap Claptrap: But apart from the cast, and the fact that we’ve moved fully past Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw and his direct acolytes to full-on Jigsaw copycats (we don’t even get Billy the Puppet), the rest of Spiral is pure-strain Saw sequel, for all the good and ill that engenders. Much of that can be laid at the feet of director Darren Lynn Bousman, who returns to the series after directing Saws II, III and IV, upping the style factor but not much else. With the bigger budget and more resources, Spiral looks a bit more like a Real Movie, modifying the series’ grainy, piss-yellow color scheme for something sharper and more atmospheric. And yet, Jordan Oram’s moody cinematography is often wrecked by the editing, which can’t decide at times how much of the original’s whirling-dervish rhythms it wants to insert into this More Serious Version of Saw.
What still works, though, are the traps, and for all of the weaknesses of Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger’s script, Spiral remains teeth-grindingly tense when it comes to the inventive trap set pieces. The film opens with a well-documented snitch (played by Letterkenny’s own Dan Petronijevic) literally tongue-tied to the train tracks, left to either rip off his own tongue or die. (You can guess how that turns out.) There are traps that pull fingers, sever spines, pour hot wax over a victim’s face. One trap features a literal glass cannon, as a chained man must endure shards of broken glass fired at him from a glass crusher. And it all bubbles with Grand Guignol deviousness.
Doors and Corners: But when Spiral turns away from the traps to follow the formulaic cop drama of its A-plot, that’s when the weaknesses of the script and direction come back to the forefront. In previous Saw films, the police search for Jigsaw and his victims was often a perfunctory B-plot to a more high-concept main story with a group of victims navigating their labyrinthine torments, trying to find a way out. Spiral presupposes you came here for the procedural cop drama, and sprinkles a couple traps here and there for the audiences who still remember what made the movies fun.
What’s more, Spiral attempts a half-hearted stab at the timely discussion of the police as a systemic institution and whether it can be “reformed” (the copycat’s stated goal in the film). But it misses some vital organs: Jigsaw doesn’t want to kill “all cops — just the bad ones,” and the script seems to adhere to the #BlueLivesMatter version of the old homily about bad apples: They don’t spoil the bunch, you just gotta pick them out. (Turns out Jigsaw isn’t just a serial killer, he’s something worse: a centrist.)
It’s a premise that feels particularly tone-deaf, especially given its half-hearted attempts to walk the tightrope between cop critique and copaganda. It also gets lost in the film’s confusing lapses into goofiness (some flashbacks give Jackson and Rock some stunningly bad facial hair), to the point where the shocks and surprises begin to dull like a rusty hacksaw. Don’t count on a true last-minute surprise, either; you’ll guess who the killer is by the halfway point.
The Verdict: Spiral is a frustrating animal: In its first half, it styles itself as a prestige sequel/revamp of a cult horror series, lifting it from its nu-metal origins into a moodier, Se7en-styled police thriller. But despite its promising start, the latter half of Spiral succumbs to formula, like a bloodied Jigsaw victim fainting from their wounds so the blades can finish the job. Points for effort, but maybe the Saw series — like the madman who started it all — should stay dead.
Where’s It Playing? Spiral: From the Book of Saw knocks you out and straps you to a theater seat to play its deadly, convoluted game on May 14th.