Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
It’s been four years since Jigsaw came out, and that was seven years after the seventh one, so you can be forgiven for thinking it was game over for the Saw Franchise. For this reason, as well as me not stepping foot in a cinema for 14 months, the opening shot of fireworks seemed just right. This new spin-off, Spiral: From the Book of Saw to give it its full awkward name, offers a different direction from what came before – owing mainly to the presence of its surprise star/ co-writer/ producer Chris Rock. Seemingly a passion project for him, the story goes that the world-famous comedian approached a producer with a pitch, and it was enough to bring back series veteran Darren Lynn Bousman.
I can see why – it’s a neat premise that seems tailor-made for right now (recent events mean the one-year release delay has given it even more significance). A jigsaw copycat is on the loose, and he’s taking out corrupt cops – the sorts who lie in court, fake evidence, or shoot unarmed civilians. Among them is Det. Marv Boswick, a serial liar who has one of the franchise’s nastiest deaths. His best friend Zeke (Rock), an uncooperative officer who plays by his own rules, wants to lead the case – which makes sense since the killer seems to be targeting him too. Though thanks to him doing the right thing in the past and being the boss’ (Jackson) kid, he’s as popular as a body camera. He’s also got the joys of being teamed up with fresh-faced young rookie William (Minghella). To an extent, these films have always been about law enforcement, so that’s nothing new. It’s also not the first to dabble in real-world issues since the sixth boldly argued for a nationalised health care system. However, importantly it doesn’t watch like the rest.
For a start, Spiral is laugh-out-loud funny. I wouldn’t say it lapses into parody, though there is at least one wink for fans. But the police patter is peppered with amusing phrases and observations. In particular, you’ll never look at Forrest Gump in the same way. Rock is also an excellent swearer. Though he seems oddly out of sync with other actors in the dramatic scenes, he’s in his element when Zeke is at his most cocky and flippant. He creates a character you’d never want to hang out with yet can’t take your eyes off. His relationship with William also adds a lot to it, resembling a buddy movie that sticks its middle finger up at some of the genre’s cuddlier conventions. This isn’t two different guys making each other better – even if it offers some redemption for Zeke. It’s essentially one partner idolising the other despite, them being deeply self-destructive. This sort of rawness, and irreverence, elevates the movie above the bog-standard police procedural it keeps threatening to turn into: an anti-social maverick cop with a tortured backing story, drink problem, and daddy issues losing himself in a case.
The case itself is less interesting than the people on it. There aren’t many traps, and of those that there are, only the first and the last grabbed me. Bousman has evidently grown as a filmmaker and doesn’t want to do gore for its own sake – the torture subgenre seems long in the (yanked out) tooth now. But in a franchise built upon ironic punishments, you sometimes got to go big or go home. Many of the plot beats will be familiar to fans of the Saw films, even if the locations open it out from the typical confined corridors and warehouses. I doubt many in the audience will be fooled by a third act reveal either, which I called with plenty of time to spare. Nine films in the fans have become savvy and know what to look for, so it lacks the pulling the rug out or saying ‘of course,’ moments Jigsaw had. The last twenty minutes are also oddly slow-paced without a real sense of threat until the very end. Maybe I’ve been spoilt by the adrenaline and rush editing of earlier entries but, for me, it didn’t have much urgency to it and relied upon a series of far-fetched coincidences (even for these films). And though I was satisfied with the closing 30 seconds or so, I’d become impatient where I should have been excited.
Still, where it works, it really does. The angrier tone and the character journey are both rewarding. As per the original film’s title, which played on voyeurism, there’s most likely a double meaning here since we see Zeke becoming increasingly unhinged. His breakdown is wonderfully captured, without the usual tiling camera moments, and often very immersive. Bousman is an excellent craftsman who makes anything he shoots look amazing. And as per numbers 2-4, he designs a striking kaleidoscope of carnage. The traps are less gratuitous than earlier outings, though they have the same visceral energy about them. There are also cool allusions to real life, with recurrent series images like puppets and pigs taking on new meaning against the backdrop of institutionally corrupt law enforcement. On that, the political subtext maybe plays it a little too safe, stepping back from what it seems to present as systemic issues, but there’s some bite there. Horror is often at its best when it’s being anti-establishment, and while this doesn’t live up to the sixth, there are a few sequences that are harrowing. The few scenes Samuel L Jackson shows up, as Zeke’s dad, to talk about the barely concealed subtext are also outstanding – even if their relationship isn’t dissimilar to ones you’ve seen elsewhere, you’re in the company of two ace actors.
A while back, fans suggested the inclusion of Rock and Jackson showed the series getting desperate. For me, nothing could be further from the truth. Both actors will be taking a severe pay-cut compared to what they’re used to. Heck, Rock has been deeply involved from the get-go and seemingly did all-nighters rewriting it. So, he’s worked far harder for way less money than he’d make on a Netflix special or farting out another Adam Sandler film. I have no doubt he’s made this out of genuine affection for the property and would love to see him back to shape the sequel – which this one sets up. I’d put this on roughly the same level as Jigsaw and would gladly see either continue. Though if asked to ‘make my choice,’ I reckon this one has way more potential.