★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Spiral: From the Book of Saw attempts a fresh start to a somewhat tired franchise, and packs in A-list celebrities into a pedestrian plot, that ties itself up with too much exposition and not enough of the tricks and traps that made Saw such a draw.
Directed by Darren Lyn Bousman
It’s too bad, really. Spiral: From the Book of Saw had its heart in the right place and attempted to inject new life into a listing franchise in need of some fresh ideas. The movie had a lot of hype building up behind it, and Lionsgate felt confident enough with this film that they waited through the pandemic to release it. It felt like this was going to be a breakthrough horror film.
The original Saw movie was a jolt to the horror system by way of James Wan and Leigh Whannel. It ushered in the popularity, for better or worse, the torture-porn phenomenon of the early 2000s. It was so successful, on such a small budget that it spawned a movie a year for six straight years. The Saw franchise was built on incredibly imaginative lose-lose traps that people of dubious ethics would have to decide between pain and/or dismemberment or certain death.
Each of the Saw movies would feature a taunting villain, Jigsaw, who would devise these devilishly nasty conundrums and people often would opt to save their skins at the very last moment… but too late to escape their deadly fate. Like the old ’80s warhorse franchise horror films, the quality of each successive film dropped, and though the traps would be fiendishly imaginative, the plots were decidedly not. The films took on a bit of a reputation for being something of a geek freak show and were super-light on character and plot, making the franchise vulnerable to the oncoming tide of the well-scripted character-heavy horror dramas in the coming decade.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw attempted to remedy some of the problems of the lack of serious plots and characters and was the brainchild of star comedian Chris Rock, who pitched the idea to Lionsgate Films and is an executive producer on the film as well as the star. Spiral: From the Book of Saw has turned Saw into a police procedural drama with a copycat killer, which is a natural for this series, as Jigsaw is something of a legacy that gets passed on from one copycat to another.
The movie opens strongly, with an undercover cop chasing a burglar into a tunnel, only to get surprised by a man in a pig mask, and wakes up with his tongue in a vise and suspended above a subway train track. It is a classic Saw conundrum and the result is appropriately gory. As it turns out, this Detective Boswick (Dan Petronijevic) was a bit of a dirty cop, and his torture/justice was a nod to his crimes.
Word gets back to the precinct, and it hits officer Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) particularly hard. Boswick was Banks’ only friend after Banks turned on an old dirty cop partner of his who killed a criminal witness. This crossed the cop code, and Banks, the son of the former chief (Samuel L Jackson), has been ostracized for years. Everyone else in the precinct is a jerk, it appears. Banks gets assigned a new rookie partner (Max Minghella) and they are assigned to find Boswick’s killer.
It soon comes to light that this may be the return of the notorious Jigsaw serial killer (bum bum BAAAA!) which puts everyone on edge. But… not so much on edge that the team does not take extra precautions, like sticking with your partner when a cop killer is on the loose. Inevitably, the killer gets the drop on a few of the investigating cops, who are of course get their comeuppance for their wayward ways, and in classic Saw fashion, the killer is in plain sight in the movie, but there’s a pretty big switcheroo.
In the guessing game of whodunit, I bit early on one suspect on a red herring dropped by the plot. My friend Amy, a huge fan of the franchise saw the Saw pattern and was able to sniff out the killer in the first act of the film. So, there’s a gauntlet thrown challenge to you Saw franchise fans out there. How quickly can you spot the killer?
I applaud the movie for trying to create characters with backstories and room to grow. Unfortunately, the script and the editing were cringe-worthy. There is a lot of exposition in this movie: lots of explaining and not as much showing. And, for good measure, the movie will introduce flashback sequences just in case you didn’t remember some of the clues that were left earlier in the film. The writers did not trust the audience to put this together and remember what was just said five minutes ago. This felt like a reaction to a test screener audience survey. The plot is convoluted, and so unfortunately you get a lot of soap-box speechifying and villain monologuing. Subtlety is not a strong suit of this movie.
Chris Rock does an admirable job of playing it straight in this role. He does allow a few Chris Rock comedic elements, but most of the time his face is pinched in seriousness, and the famous wide grin of his is rarely on display. The dialogue feels like a leftover from a middling cop drama. There are very strong ties to movies like Training Day, Seven, and 48 Hours (all clear inspirations) but all of those movies were significantly better than this one.
Samuel L. Jackson has a fairly limited role here. He’s a bit of a MacGuffin, and he does have a pivotal role in the movie, but his presence sometimes is forgotten. Max Minghella is great as Zeke’s rookie partner. The traditional rookie hazing is actually well-executed here, and he doesn’t play a hopeless greenhorn.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t a hundred and one cop movie cliches.
You get the captain (Marisol Nichols) yelling at the detective (I was waiting for “I want your piece and your badge!”) You get the snarky group of dirty cops. You get the mysterious packages arriving at the precinct. You get the territorial pissing matches. It’s all there, somewhat ham-fistedly making up a lot of the character development, which is unfortunate.
I have a soft spot for Darren Lyn Bousman. He was my first professional interview, and he was generous and wonderful to talk to. I loved his nunsploitation movie Saint Agatha, and he has done decent work on a lot of the other Saw movies. But he is hampered here with awkward editing and the aforementioned sloppy plot. Most egregiously what is missing here however is the patented Saw meat grinder. The tricks and traps are fewer and farther between here. The traps that get executed are interesting, but the people getting killed are not sympathetic characters, and that tends to be a problem throughout the franchise. But for those who are looking for the non-stop torture-porn of old… you may find the pace a bit wanting.
This wasn’t an awful movie, but it has to be considered disappointing, given the cast, the budget ($40 Million), and the provenance of the franchise. It had the potential to be a formidable reboot like what the Halloween franchise just did. You can combine a police procedural and make a good horror movie. Silence of the Lambs, Predator II (Yes, I said that), The Relic, Zodiac, and Se7en are great examples of mixing a cop drama and a horror theme, and not losing any of the pacing or the scares. It can be done. It is still a good-looking film, the traps and twists are Saw franchise worthy, and there is definitely charismatic talent on the screen, but in the end, I found myself shaking my head at a lost opportunity.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw is rated R for gore, violence, and language. It is currently in wide release in theaters through the USA.