‘Spiral: From the Book of Saw’ Review: It’s A Whole New Game
The original Jigsaw Killer died in Saw III. That didn’t stop the franchise from cranking out five more sequels, each one twisting itself into tighter and tighter narrative pretzels to explain how the late John Kramer and his apprentices were still torturing people from beyond the grave. No matter how absurd or labyrinthian they got, the Saws kept making money every year, at least for a while. So why not another?
And here we are at Spiral: From the Book of Saw, the first new film in the bloody horror saga since 2017’s Jigsaw. As the title suggests, this entry takes a slightly different approach to the material. Although almost every previous Saw involved one or two police officers on the trail of Jigsaw — occasionally dogged public servants, but much more commonly corrupt or outright incompetent boobs — this one is the first that’s a cop movie first and a grisly horror film second.
It stars Chris Rock — who supposedly pitched this concept to Lionsgate — as Detective Zeke Banks of the “South Metro Police Department. (All the Saw films take place in a city that has never been named.) Years earlier, Zeke testified against an officer who shot a witness, branding him with the reputation of a rat and making him the pariah of a department full of dirty cops. When a new Jigsaw begins killing those dirty cops in spectacularly gruesome fashion, Zeke finds himself caught in the middle of a case he wants nothing to do with.
After eight movies, the Saw formula could certainly use an update. And Rock does a fine job moving outside his comfort zone, even if Zeke still talks in Chris Rock standup jokes. (In his very first scene, he gives a long monologue about why Forrest Gump could never be made in 2021.) Though Spiral is structured differently than most of its predecessors, it still looks like a Saw movie, thanks to returning director Darren Lynn Bousman from Saw II, III, and IV. His Metro PD station is all warm browns and earth tones, a stark contrast to the world of Jigsaw’s traps, which are bathed in the same sickly greens and blues of the original films. (In any era, in any identity, Jigsaw has a real flair for dramatic lighting.) That strong visual continuity connects Spiral to the franchise’s past.
Other than that, though, there really doesn’t seem to be much to link Spiral to the old Saws. Yes, there are traps. Yes, a Jigsaw copycat runs around with a pig mask. Yes the victims make choices that seal their fate. Ultimately, though, this could be any serial killer obsessed with dirty cops. The movie never really offers a convincing onscreen reason for this person to claim the mantle of Jigsaw. (The offscreen reason is that Lionsgate wanted to make another Saw, and this was the way they decided to do it.) In hindsight, a reboot with a totally new character might have made more sense.
Several scenes are brightened considerably by the presence of Samuel L. Jackson as Zeke’s dad, the former chief of police. Jackson has exactly the right energy for a Saw film. A villain who outsmarts the heroes at every turn can get a little frustrating, so it’s nice to have someone who can yell “You want to play games, motherf—er?!” occasionally. The only problem is Jackson’s barely in the movie; maybe a total of four scenes set in the present and a couple of brief flashbacks. You want Spiral to become a two-hander between Rock and Jackson. It never comes close to getting there.
It’s not clear to me whether Spiral will play better or worse for longtime fans of the franchise. They will get their fill of impossibly elaborate death traps (there’s one that’s really implausible, even by the standards of Saw), along with a film that takes its core concept very seriously. On the other hand, superfans are also more likely to figure out the new Jigsaw’s identity, and they might get a little frustrated that Spiral focuses so much on the cops and so little on the killer and their warped philosophy.
Whether or not you bought into Jigsaw’s beliefs — he always insisted he never murdered anyone and designed his “games” to teach people the meaning of life — the way the old Saws wrestled with his philosophy made them more interesting than simplistic “torture porn.” By emphasizing the incorruptible Zeke, Spiral eliminates most of the moral gray areas that distinguished the best earlier movies. Still, it could be worse. (Several other Saw sequels are.)
-Yes, you will hear “Hello Zepp” at some point during the film.
-I still don’t know why Spiral is subtitled From the Book of Saw. I don’t recall a lot of book reading in the previous Saw films. Was Jigsaw a prolific writer in his spare time?