Spiral review: A passable but uninspired take on the grit and grime of Saw

Chris Rock stars as ’Detective Ezekiel ’Zeke’ Banks’ in SPIRAL. Photo Credit: Brooke Palmer
Chris Rock stars as ’Detective Ezekiel ’Zeke’ Banks’ in SPIRAL. Photo Credit: Brooke Palmer /

Nearly 17 years after the original Saw reverse-bear-trapped its way into the public consciousness and turned the horror genre on its head, James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s torture porn franchise is still running strong. Eight films later, audiences are getting their latest taste of Jigsaw (or at least, a copycat)  in the franchise’s latest entry Spiral: From the Book of Saw. Though Chris Rock gives a charismatic leading performance, the film’s lackluster traps and by-the-book plot aren’t quite enough to make this a truly exciting new installment in the franchise.

Directed by franchise vet Darren Lynn Bousman (Saws 2, 3, and 4), Spiral follows lone wolf detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock) as he races against time to catch the copycat Jigsaw killer who’s picking off the officers in his department one by one. Alongside his rookie partner William Schenk (Max Minghella), and his police veteran father Marcus (Samuel L Jackson), Zeke begins to realize that the Jigsaw killer’s targets are more than just crooked cops – they all bear some kind of connection to Zeke himself.

What’s immediately striking about Spiral is how aesthetically different it feels from the rest of the franchise. Part of this is likely due to the sheer amount of time that’s passed between installments – gone are the excessively color-graded grimy tableaus of the early franchise, in favor of a more traditionally cinematic feel that was also present in 2017’s Jigsaw. The budget is on par with Saw 3D (20 million – which is chump change in comparison to most modern blockbusters, but a far cry from the measly 1.2 million of the original film), which also likely added to the distinctly more polished aesthetics – hardly the grit and grime that the Saw franchise used to make a name for itself.

But as un-Saw as the visuals feel, it’s the film’s casting that’s the biggest departure from the rest of the franchise – in that it stars massive, A-list actors as opposed to unknowns, crew members, or genre mainstays. Though Chris Rock is certainly a capable lead, his presence – alongside those of Samuel L Jackson, Max Minghella, and Marisol Nichols – is such a change from the typical Saw casting that it almost takes us out of the film.

It’s certainly no fault of Rock’s that he’s famous, though, and he makes for a solid lead as the wisecracking, cynical Detective Banks, one of the city’s few good cops who took a bullet to the stomach for his trouble. Though Zeke has a few questionable moments – a particularly unceccecarily violent encounter with a meth dealer being the most prominent – none of the character’s faults can be attributed to Rock, who gives a committed performance, and one that certainly helps to anchor the film. Without Rock at the center, Spiral may not have worked as well as it did – which says quite a bit, considering he’s one of the film’s few genuinely good elements.

In terms of the plot itself, Spiral is your standard Saw setup – there’s a jigsaw killer running around, and a hard-boiled police detective will stop at nothing to unmask him and stop the murders. Spiral takes a more police-oriented twist, though – the film has large chunks set in Banks’ precinct, and this time around, all of the jigsaw copycat killer’s victims are cops. Now, despite the film’s insistence that jigsaw has never targeted cops (Hoffman, Matthews, Rigg, and Kerry – among many others – beg to differ) this police-heavy element shifts the film entirely, from feeling like a Saw movie with a cop twist to a cop movie with a Saw twist.

Because, at the end of the day, that’s what Spiral feels like – your standard cop thriller with a shiny coat of Jigsaw thrown over it. If not for the four jigsaw traps, the film has practically no connection to the rest of the franchise – we don’t even get a proper explanation as to why the killer chose to emulate Jigsaw’s killings instead of just picking off corrupt cops the old fashioned way. It’s strange to watch a Saw film where the franchise itself almost feels like an afterthought – but the lackluster traps combined with the lack of Jigsaw’s prevalence in the narrative result in a Saw film that barely counts as Saw.

To the film’s credit, though, it’s remarkably well-paced – sitting at a tidy hour and a half, and being incredibly economical with how it budgets its time. As strong as the pacing may be, though, the same can’t be said for the film’s tone – because despite the hip hop-infused soundtrack and the zingy one-liners, Spiral is a one-note film from start to finish, that struggles to mount tension or determine any meaningful stakes or timeline until it’s too late.

It’s also worth mentioning that although we’ve never found ourselves particularly adept at spotting the killer in a whodunit, any viewer at least half paying attention will be able to spot the culprit a mile away – and the obviousness of the killer’s identity isn’t helped by the convoluted reasoning for why they began killing in the first place.

Though on paper Spiral has all the right elements to make for an exciting and fresh take on an iconic horror institution, there just isn’t enough life (no pun intended) injected into the film to make it a worthwhile endeavor. It’s not bad, per se, and Chris Rock certainly does his best to elevate the film, but Spiral has neither the wit nor the guts to truly be a worthy successor to such a massive franchise.

Next. In The Earth review: a surrealist, acid-trip take on horror. dark

Are you planning to see Spiral? Have you already seen it? Let us know your thoughts on this continuation of the Saw franchise in the comments.