SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW (2021)
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. Written by Josh Stolberg, Pete Goldfinger.
Chris Rock plays Zeke Banks, one of the few honest cops left on the force. Living in the shadow of his retired police chief father Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), Zeke struggles every day because he turned in a bad cop to the authorities and the rest of the crooked cops don’t appreciate that. After bungling an undercover job, Zeke is paired with a rookie partner William Schenk (Max Minghella) and is assigned a new case involving a dead man found in the subway. Turns out, this corpse is a crooked cop himself and he is the victim of someone using John Kramer aka Jigasaw’s old M.O. which was depicted in great detail in the previous eight SAW films which involves a trail of clues, intricate traps, multiple twists and turns, and a massive pile of body parts.
So, I’m not the biggest fan of the SAW series, but I believe I’ve seen them all. I understand there are those who love this series and I understand that. It was quite the phenomenon for a while as a new SAW film was released in theaters almost every year and people were there, in theaters, to watch it every time. I totally understand why there are uber-fans of this series because that’s how FRIDAY THE 13TH nabbed me as a fan for life in the eighties. So, while I may not be as into the story as some horror fans, I understand why people are. Yes, these films are gory. Yes, they seem to take much pleasure in torturing the victims and showing it in gruesome detail. Yes, they got overly complicated the longer the series ran. But still, one cannot deny the power this series has had on horror for almost twenty years.
While the film has its issues, SPIRAL does a wonderful job of paring away a lot of the soap operatic baggage that weighed down the latter films of the SAW series. In those films, when John Kramer eventually died, it either forced the filmmakers to write in a loop, circling back to tell stories set in the past, or write in new characters with vague ties to Kramer to keep his mythos going. The further away from Kramer the stories got, the less effective they were. People liked Tobin Bell, so the film series went out of its way to bring him back in one way or another even after he died. SPIRAL pares away all of that by basically setting this film in an indeterminate amount of time after the SAW killings ended. Yes, in SPIRAL, someone is using Jigsaw’s old M.O., but the mystery is who and why, not how is Joh Kramer alive and killing again. So, subtitling this one FROM THE BOOK OF SAW, suggests that there are acolytes out there inspired by Jigsaw’s work and applying their own reasons for implementing his complex acts of retribution.
This means that we get a straight up mystery with SPIRAL, asking the basic questions; who, what, where, when, and most importantly, why. In a whole lot of ways, the entire SAW series takes a huge page from David Fincher’s SE7EN and that’s extremely evident in SPIRAL. Everything from the dank and dismal color scheme of piss yellow, gaudy reds, and nauseating green filters, to the pairing of a newbie and a wizened cop, to the singular focus on the investigation of this case will remind you of Fincher’s detective classic. Even the story structure is wrapped around some extravagant set pieces discovered after the fact, packages and clues delivered to the cops and challenging them, and an explosive confrontation where no one leaves unscathed. Still, as far as SE7EN riffs go, SPIRAL does it decently.
A lot of it rests on the slender shoulders of Chris Rock. Yes, it’s been widely publicized that Rock has been a SAW fan and was an integral part in producing this reboot of the series. But I was hesitant to believe Rock could carry an entire film dramatically. And while there might have been a few dramatic stumbles here and there were Rock may have overstretched, he does a decent job. A lot of this has to do with the fact that it’s apparent Rock injects some of his stand-up into the script. The monologue about FORREST GUMP at the beginning and the bits in the car where Rock and his new partner talk about wives is all Rock’s standup and it’s quite funny. Even when he is angry and screaming at the crooked cops around him, Rock has an attitude and it fits this character who is sarcastic, jaded, and burned out. But he does a decent job making the viewer care about the dire situation he is in and the story puts him in some deep shit. Even though there are a few stumbles along the way, Rock makes for a compelling, if not unconventional detective/action star and I hope he continues to develop this in future films.
Samuel L. Jackson is fun. He’s just basically Samuel L. Jackson here. He gets to drop a few f-bombs and really, he’s so charismatic that you really just enjoy the little time he does have on screen. His role is crucial to Rock’s character, but he has very little to do other than represent everything cool, capable, and calm—qualities Rock’s Zeke doesn’t really have.
There is a substantial amount of gore, a lot of which I am surprised how gory it actually gets. There’s all kinds of torture and dismemberment going on and it gets quite a bit of screentime. Still, none of them are as elaborate as previous SAW films. They’re just new variations of ways to destroy the human body. So gorehounds have something to look forward to. Director Darren Lynn Bousman helmed SAW II, III, and IV, so he understands what needs to be in a SAW movie and does a decent job of maintaining the look and feel as if SPIRAL fits right in with the previous series, right up to the fast-speed renditions of the way the traps work and multiple use of flashbacks. Writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger wrote the previous attempt to reboot the series JIGSAW, so again, this is a film made by folks who know how to make a SAW film.
The problem with SPIRAL is that while I feel it will be a hit mainly due to its star power in Rock and Jackson, it still just kind of feels like a regular old SAW film. That’ll definitely please those who are fans of the SAW series, but the film really does little to be anything other than that. The film does shift its focus to crooked cops, which in this day and age of everything political, might ruffle a few feathers, but at least it is focusing on the bad cops and not all cops. This being a detective film, there are good cops in this film too, so that’s kind of refreshing. There is an over-use of the pig mask from the previous SAW films, which I guess could be seen as a derogatory remark against cops though. Unfortunately, the big reveal isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, though the film does end on a rather poetic note, as dire as it is. And yes, it does leave things open for a sequel, but the killer definitely lacks the charm of Bell’s Jigsaw. Still, even if there isn’t a direct sequel, SPIRAL opens the series up for any twisted soul looking for a taste of complex retribution to take up Jigsaw’s reigns.
Fans of the SAW series have come to expect elaborate death-traps, bodily dismemberment, a misleading plot, and some high dramatics by the end and SPIRAL’s got all that. It’s a typical SAW film and I guess that’s ok. It’s not as good at the first one, but it’s comparable to pretty much all of the ones that followed. While it seems a lot more money was plopped into this production and it shows. Bousman has made a good-looking film with that cash and it afforded some big names to star in it. If Rock is in love with this series as much as he says he is, maybe he’ll be back for a sequel. If not, I’m sure there’ll still be another SAW or SPIRAL film coming soon anyway.