Chris Rock shows passion, but unimaginative traps and a reliance on procedural formula hurt Saw‘s second attempt at a revival

By: Steve Pulaski

First things first. Spiral: From the Book of Saw was my first experience in a movie theater since mid-March 2020, when the world changed for all of us Americans. It was my longest drought of not going to a theater in at least 15 years. The film could’ve been better, sure. The experience, however, reminded me what I had gone without for 14 straight months. I’ll keep it pithy. It was great to be back.

Onto Spiral, the ninth installment of the Saw franchise. It’s been four years since Jigsaw turned up in theaters and reminded us all why this franchise should’ve ended a long time ago, and a whopping 11 years since Saw: The Final Chapter was released, once having a subtitle that was indeed true.

Spiral was essentially spoken into existence by Chris Rock, who reportedly had lengthy discussions with the vice chairman of Lionsgate about breeding new life into the franchise. Rock stars as Detective Ezekiel Banks, who realizes he’s hunting an elusive copycat killer using the blueprint of the original Jigsaw killer, John Kramer. The mysterious figure is targeting the corrupt cops within Banks’ precinct, forcing them to endure similar torture devices that will leave them brutally mangled if they survive or end their lives should they fail to free themselves.

Banks’ reputation amongst his precinct isn’t particularly strong. 12 years ago, he snitched on his own partner for killing an unarmed witness, rendering him a snitch in the eyes of the department. At one time, Banks’ own father, Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), was the captain of the precinct, but now that job is filled by Angie (the always game Marisol Nichols), who assigns rookie Schenk (Max Minghella, The Handmaid’s Tale) to be his new partner. Angie has the thankless task of trying to remain on Banks’ side while appeasing a PD filled with slimeballs, many of whom meet their ugly fates in elaborate traps.

With all the time Spiral has had to marinate, director Darren Lynn Bousman (who directed installments IIIV) and company made a conscious effort to invigorate new life into the series from a visual standpoint. Cinematographer Jordan Oram ditches the grimy, abandoned warehouse aesthetics of the previous films in favor of attractively muted palettes, including orange skies, black-and-teal streets, and crowded interiors. It’s quite the dose of eye candy for a series that’s relished ugliness in nearly every department.

Screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger’s commitment to the police procedural aspect of Spiral reminded me of this year’s lazy Denzel Washington vehicle The Little Things, which is something I didn’t want to be reminded of, quite frankly. The big issue that plagues Spiral is the lack of imagination, particularly in regards to the traps. The traps happen far too quickly to resonate as anything more than sinister brutality. Even the worst Saw sequels offered inventive traps that allowed time for panic to heighten and the moral implications of said traps to be addressed. One cop is drowned in hot wax and another has their fingers pried off as an electricity-laden bathtub quickly fills. More time was clearly given to the narrative than the traps themselves. That’s fine if the procedural beats didn’t often feel so underwhelming given the mostly faceless characters within the precinct.

Like many, I too take issue with the senseless retconning of the series. At one point, when discussing the killer’s potential motive, Banks states, “John Kramer didn’t target cops.” Patently false. This would be forgivable if the person who directed Saw II and Saw IV — which not only revolved around but addressed the how/why Kramer targeted law enforcement — wasn’t directing this one. The statement itself doesn’t even lead to Banks forming a cogent theory. It’s a throwaway line that should’ve been omitted long before shooting commenced.

Give credit where credit’s due. Rock is effective in the lead role, showing someone who has clearly taken notes on the series. His integration of comedy into the material mostly works, even if his introduction is him rambling to his colleagues about how Forrest Gump wouldn’t be made in today’s “woke” culture in a monologue that comes across as imitating Tarantino. Furthermore, Oram’s cinematography strikes the right visual notes, and 21 Savage’s contributions to the soundtrack are simply glorious.

Following the dizzying (yet satisfying) climax, the film concludes with 21’s titular track over the end credits. Little did I know exactly what I needed to close out my return to the movie theater was the immensely talented, Atlanta-based spitter rapping lines like, “My youngin’ got them bodies, he still piss in the bed. Keep the code of silence, don’t repeat what I said” over a beat with the trademark Saw theme interpolated into the trap composition. Call it Spiral Mode.

Grade: C

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