It’s great fun thinking about all of the subtitle options for horror sequels these days. Spiral has “From the Book of Saw” as an optional add-on to make sure audiences know we’re back in the world made famous by James Wan and Leigh Whannell, and shaped into a template by director Darren Lynn Bousman, who has returned to direct this ninth installment. Still, the options were open. Saw: Resurrection, Jigsaw’s Revenge, Saw: The New Blood – all of these were on the table. Instead, we focus on the word spiral, a familiar symbol for this series with its own thematic relevance. Sadly, the deeper ideas this entry aims at do little to reignite the series. Instead, the film scrapes by as a decently assembled, albeit very gory, detective thriller where the surprises aren’t all that surprising.
The origins of this sequel/soft reboot are fun. Rather than Lionsgate deciding it was just time to dust off one of their signature franchises (i.e., how they did with the rather bland 2017 entry, Jigsaw), it actually started with Chris Rock. Being a fan of the franchise, Rock went from randomly pitching an idea to starring in Spiral and locking up an executive producer credit for his troubles. With Rock on board, I more or less expected the Saw franchise to flirt more overtly with societal issues. A 2020-set Saw movie could certainly be interesting, given how the country has changed over time. That said, I wish it did more than just circle some familiar ideas with a yellow highlighter.
Rock stars as detective Zeke Banks, a brash but honest cop who takes a lot of guff from the other cops in his precinct for turning in a corrupt officer years ago. Zeke’s father, Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), is a veteran police officer whose only been able to do so much to help. After being assigned a rookie partner (Max Minghella), Banks quickly finds himself the lead investigator of a homicide case involving the grisly murder of a police officer. It becomes more personal when mysterious packages reveal what appears to be a Jigsaw copycat, who intends to punish corrupt cops with elaborate murder machines (which offer self-mutilation as a key to escape, naturally). Will Banks be able to find an answer at the center of this gruesome game?
Written by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger (the writers behind Jigsaw), there’s unfortunately not a lot to jolt anyone familiar with the thrillers that have come out between David Fincher’s Seven and now. That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had following along with Rock’s Banks to figure out where this is all going. Still, for a series that dedicated itself to an elaborate continuity and wild twists serving to rewrite what everyone thinks while paving the way for more to come, Spiral comes up lacking. Part of that comes down to how standalone this film feels. Without necessarily serving as a direct sequel to what’s come before, the film has to use a lot of its 90-minute runtime setting up a status quo complete with new characters and storylines, in addition to all the investigations and gory murder-game sequences.
This would be less of a problem if the storyline amounted to more. It certainly had the opportunity to. The previous saw films have never been shy about attacking the issues. Various entries have gone after corrupt cops, con artists, racists, and health insurance companies (a significant topical element of Saw VI, one of the best entries of the series). With Spiral, the film is delving headfirst into institutional problems with the police, though it can’t seem to find more weight to attach to it. This becomes especially awkward given the four main cast members, including a police captain played by Marisol Nichols, all being people of color. It’s as if the pieces were all scattered on the floor for this film to assemble into an insightful look at the state of things, using a horror franchise as a launching pad, but the result was just a simple toy rather than a more complex construction.
That toy can be fun to play with. The death traps, which include an elaborate cold open involving a moving train, another sequence featuring a pool of death, and other nasty designs, certainly deliver on what the gorehounds are looking for. This Saw movie easily earns its R-rating, not skimping on what’s to be expected. Even Rock manages to get by in an involving role that puts his acting chops to the test (he struggles a little, but fairs better here than in the recent season of TV’s Fargo). Still, whether or not one enjoys Rock blending his jokey thoughts on Forrest Gump with his overacted frustrations, the film gets help from Minghella adding some heart and Jackson, of course, who brings an appropriate amount of what he’s very good at doing.
The return of Bousman (as well as composer Charlie Clouser) does enough for the film as well. As a higher budgeted entry in the series, the stretching of every dollar means getting a bit more slickness, as the visuals are generally a highlight of this macabre series. Establishing wide shots of the city, overhead helicopter/drone angles, locations extending beyond dirty warehouses and police stations – this movie has some room to move around, which is nice to see. It’s a far cry better than the last two entries (and the pretty awful Saw V) in that regard.
Much of this film’s enjoyment will come from expectations for Spiral based on what audiences like about this series. If it’s simply about the death games “Jigsaw” plays, those fans will be rewarded. If an audience merely desires a suitably bloody police procedural, there’s enough there to keep the film engaging. Those tagging in to get the latest dose of highly complex plot connections will be left wanting. And anyone hoping Rock’s idea would allow for an interesting perspective as a means of taking on important topics of the day will wonder why this film seems to be holding back.
I was hoping for more. As one who’s had a complicated relationship with the Saw series (I only consider III and VI ‘good’, yet I’m fully invested in the ridiculous interconnected continuity of it all), I was hoping this would be a wiser step in the right direction. Compared to the previous two films, Spiral is an improvement. However, all the right ingredients did not do enough to place the movie in a safe zone. It may be one of the best overall entries in this franchise by default, but with little in the way of surprises or new angles on “Jigsaw’s” extreme form of social justice, I can only take so much away from bad people being tortured in elaborate ways. Spiral does bring new life to the series, but it’s still a bit too rusty to make a clean cut.