After a sizable dormant period the Saw franchise has reawakened for its ninth entry, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, and with it comes both familiar elements and steps into new territory. It’s more or less what you expect it to be from the trailers, a Saw film told in the style of Seven wherein two cops try and solve the mystery of the new Jigsaw killer. It’s an earnest attempt to stray away from the stigmatized version of Saw we all became familiar with in the mid 2000s, the franchise that made parents squeamish just by its name. It has its familiar elements to the previous entries, but for the most part how they attempt to break away from the formula is what makes this one interesting… but not very Saw like.
My biggest gripe with Spiral comes from the fact that it really doesn’t feel like it needs to be a Saw movie. Despite featuring brief references to the Jigsaw killer and even a few pictures of Tobin Bell’s John Kramer (along with some namedrops), the film is largely a separate entity. It’s something that the creative team wrestled with when making the movie, trying something new while trying to remain distinctly Saw. The movie turns into a classic case of “having its cake and eating it too” where there are traps, gore, puppets and other familiar imagery, but take out the traps and you are left with a Seven knockoff. The novelty of Spiral then stems from the fact that it IS a Saw movie, more interested in how this is possibly related to the other movies than being a true reinvention of a familiar series. It is enjoyable for what it is, a cop suspense thriller with Saw traps, but it doesn’t have that extra push it needs to make it truly great.
What Spiral does have however is the benefit of big name actors, with the major stars of the film being Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson. The series hasn’t had that caliber of actor since the first film introduced Danny Glover and to a slightly lesser extent Cary Elwis. The two add their own personal touches to the film, Sam Jackson playing Sam Jackson and Chris Rock doing his best as a cop but with his own personality shining through. You can absolutely tell that Chris Rock did some improvised comedy on set, quipping about various little things that couldn’t have possibly been in the script. At one point Chris Rock’s Detective Zeke and the police captain meet in the men’s restroom and the captain tells an officer peeing to zip up and leave, after he does so Zeke points out that he hadn’t washed his hands. It was a moment that very clearly wasn’t in the script, but if Chris Rock hadn’t been the lead the brief comedic moment wouldn’t have happened. Honestly, I’m a bit conflicted on these comedic additions, on one hand these movies are supposed to be super serious and dark but on the other some of these one-liners were genuinely pretty funny. It also helps that the gore has been toned down a bit, serving the story rather than being the main attraction. It feels like quips are added to anything nowadays so adding them to Saw was only natural, I suppose. It makes it feel a bit different, but it treads a very delicate line of going too far with jokes.
What the movie does with its story is a lot more interesting than most other Saw movies, taking what can only be considered a political stance in this day and age against cops. The story follows Detective Zeke and his partner William Schenk, played by Max Minghella, as they investigate the death of one of their own after he was hit by a train. We then follow the clues as the killer offs more and more of the corrupt police force, along the way we are introduced to Zeke’s dad, played by Sam Jackson, who was the former police captain. Zeke lives in the shadow of his father and is not a very well liked member of the force after he ratted out his corrupt partner. It makes for a tense atmosphere where no one wants to help Zeke figure this mystery out except his new partner. In all of this we also discover that while Zeke may not be wrongfully convicting anyone, he may have his own dirty methods to reckon with. It does a relatively good job of being a mystery with quite a few red herrings to throw you off as to who the killer is, but by the mid way point you will more than likely have figured it out. It’s a story that might be incredible in the hands of someone other than franchise alum Darren Lynn Bousman and outside of an established series. The quick cuts and fast editing during traps added just to feel more like Saw. The idea of a corrupt police force being punished is a great idea that would do well in today’s Hollywood, but attaching it to Saw just doesn’t feel quite right. For once the terrible moralizing of the series has a distinct path that actually makes sense, but in making it the way they did you are left asking if this is still Saw?
Overall the issues that plague Spiral don’t weigh it down enough to make it as bad as some of the other entries but doesn’t quite lift it to the quality of the first. Although this is admittedly the closest the Saw sequels have come to being on par with the first. It’s exactly what you expect it to be, and as long as you don’t try and ask it for anything more you will be decently entertained. For the first time back in a big theater Spiral was a very enjoyable night out, and the theatrical experience it provided was another reminder that movies are back. The gasps at every revelation and squeamish yaps at the traps from the audience helped make Spiral worth it, and that is what movies really need right now.