Review by James Lindorf
It has been 17 years since John Kramer, better known as Jigsaw, first gave people a shot at redemption in one of his games. Spiral is the 9th film in the series but just the second in 11 years. Like a lot of fans, “Saw: The Final Chapter” broke me and was the end of my interest in the series to the point it took me years before I sat down to watch 2017’s pre-sequel “Jigsaw.” I never expected that legendary comedian Chris Rock of all people would reenergize a series I thought had run its course. From Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures, “Spiral” is now available in theaters around the country.
In his duty as producer, Chris Rock was able to bring back veteran Saw director Darren Lynn Bousman for the fourth time. Bousman previously helmed parts 2, 3, and 4, which was easily my favorite portion of the franchise to this point. Rock also brought back “Jigsaw” writers Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger. With someone passionate about the movie like Rock and a team with talent and familiarity with the series, “Spiral” had the potential to be very different while still feeling like it belongs. Bousman, Stolberg, and Goldfinger knew they were breaking the mold with Chris Rock as the star. The series has had some actors who have been in comedies, like Cary Elwes, but there has never been a true comedian. Rock can give a serious performance, but it will never lack humor, something the Saw series has always lacked. Most horror movies use humor to break the tension of being frightened, but these movies have always been over series, so it is a welcome change.
Because Rock would be bringing different energy, the creative team didn’t want to stray too far from the Saw universe story-wise. While the interconnectivity of the Saw franchise is twisted and overly complicated, each film has a relatively simple premise, and “Spiral” is no different. Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock) is both the star and the bane of the Metro police department. After Zeke turned in a dirty cop ten years ago, he has been despised and left on his own no matter how dangerous the situation. It has built a tremendous amount of anger in the passing years, and now Zeke hates them just as much. His distaste for dirty cops is why when a criminal mastermind unleashes a twisted form of justice on the police, Zeke finds himself at the center of the killer’s morbid game.
There have been many dirty cops in the history of Saw. Most of them worked for or were continuing John Kramer’s work, but the second film was all about a dirty cop and the people he has harmed. So we are definitely not breaking new ground there. “Spiral” is also the second film to feature an overarching morality question for one person. Previously it was a man who could kill or save everyone he blamed for the death of his child. This time it is Zeke and the question of how hard he should try to catch someone killing dirty cops. I am surprised that a film that tackles police corruption in a believable but over-the-top kind of way has been able to avoid the scrutiny that affected the release of “The Hunt.” Maybe people see Chris Rock and assume the commentary is just a joke. Perhaps they don’t take long-running horror movies seriously. Still, the film does have a point to make about how the police should behave when interacting with the citizens they have sworn to protect.
The decision to leave most of the change to the point of view while keeping the story familiar was probably the best choice. It is different enough to build excitement for season fans without leaving them feeling alienated. They are relying on Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, and Max Minghella (The Handmaid’s Tale) to bring in new viewers. They hope to keep them around by using successful themes from early in the franchise without all the clutter that nearly killed it in its later installments. The big question is if they did enough to make newcomers into fans that will come back for the planned sequel. No nothing has been announced, but this story clearly has more to say.
Rock’s performance is a mixed bag. He has strong moments, but there are times where he feels like a comedian that is making the transition to film. He often feels like he was brought in to do his bit and not worry about how well he is acting. I am forgiving because I am a huge fan of his, but this performance is average at best. Samuel L. Jackson is always a fabulous presence, but he doesn’t do anything special in what is little more than a cameo. Minghella probably gives the film’s best performance, but his rookie detective Schenk isn’t asked to do a whole lot. It does excel at some things like set design and sound design, and cinematography. The film looks and sounds good. The sound is so realistic that it alone has the potential to upset people with weak stomachs for violence.
With its elaborate and elongated torture scenes, the whole setup of the franchise means there is less time for things like plot. People wanting a clean and concise story may want to keep moving. However, the new energy and the new storyline have me really excited about what they can do next. With a budget for Spiral being a mere $20 million, it won’t take colossal box office numbers to guarantee another installment. I don’t think you could ask more from a 9th installment than reinventing the series and reinvigorating its fan base. While “Spiral” may not be a good movie from a nuts and bolts perspective, it is at worst a top 3 Saw movie, and it has more potential than any of them. “Spiral” is 3 out of 5, but it has the franchise trending in the right direction, making it a clear victory for the studio and the fans.