There’s something seemingly inspired in the idea of Chris Rock — a performer known mostly for comedies — approaching Lionsgate with a pitch for a new entry in the long-running Saw franchise. Funny people are no stranger to the horror genre, but where most enter the fray with original properties Rock’s interests come with seventeen years of baggage. While far less focused on John Jigsaw this time around, Spiral is still a Saw film meaning familiar beats, traps, and seemingly unavoidable deaths remain the priority leading to a big reveal and the threat of more to come.
Of course, that was the promise of 2017’s attempted reboot Jigsaw too, but none of those characters ever returned…
Det. Zeke Banks (Rock) is a high-intensity cop who fell afoul of the thin blue line a few years prior after turning in a dirty officer. Others in his precinct despise him for being a rat (so yes, everybody hates Chris), and with no other takers his captain (Marisol Nichols) soon saddles him with a rookie partner, Det. William Schenk (Max Minghella). The death of another cop in Jigsaw’s signature style — masks, metal, and mangled flesh — sends the pair on the hunt for a killer who’s apparently taken the ACAB mantra to heart. Zeke and Will chase the clues, but as the bodies pile up and Zeke’s own father (Samuel L. Jackson) starts acting suspicious the truth is revealed in bloody fashion.
Spiral tries to branch away from the Saw films in a few ways, with the most notable being the visual style and killer’s reveal. You’ll find no details here on the latter, but director Darren Lynn Bousman — a veteran having directed Saw II (2005), Saw III (2006), and Saw IV (2007) — mostly avoids the franchise’s signature style involving grinding, jittery camera work in favor of a more traditional, 90s direct-to-video aesthetic. It’s less obnoxious but far more dull, so call it a lateral move.
Even less inspired, though, is the film’s approach to the practical gore. Wherever you stand on the Saw franchise, there’s no denying its commitment to delivering some grue-tastic delights in the form of twisted bodies, shattered bones, severed limbs, and heads split like an orange with lasers. Spiral doesn’t manage a single memorable set-piece in that department as being hit by a subway car or electrocuted feel far too mundane given all that’s come before. Unrelated, but the film also goes a different direction with the killer’s voice — and it’s laughable. They’re trying to emulate Jigsaw, and past films have shown that the voice can be modulated to sound like Jigsaw, so why not use Tobin Bell?!
As with Saw VI (2009) and its welcome targeting of insurance company employees, Spiral picks a prey most viewers will be tempted to condone. The big difference, though, is that this film’s writers (Josh Stolberg & Pete Goldfinger, Jigsaw) make no effort to question that bloodlust. Saw VI actually manages a rarity for the franchise in giving us a character to root for, an insurance CEO at that, but here it’s as simple as dirty cops gotta go — a valid statement but one you can find in any number of lower-profile action/thrillers over the last four decades.
Stolberg & Goldfinger also underwhelm with a mystery element built on the identifying the identity of the franchise’s most obvious villain since Costas Mandylor grimaced in Saw III. As if being several steps ahead of the detectives wasn’t bad enough, viewers are also subjected to flashbacks — to scenes in this same movie — highlighting clues they’ve most likely caught on their own along the way. Additional flashbacks show us scenes from the past that have already been covered in earlier dialogue, and at least one is shown multiple times!
On the bright side, at least, Spiral is occasionally funny. That said, it’s not always intentional as some of this dialogue is just so laughable on its face that no degree of acting ability could save it. Rock’s influence on his character is clear in several exchanges and monologues that feel more like him doing a bit than actual human conversation. He’s playing it all straight, as is the rest of the cast, and it leaves humor where it shouldn’t be and silence as he spends a long tracking shot joking about how women cheat and Pilates isn’t even real.
Perhaps unsurprisingly as it comes from Jigsaw‘s writers, Spiral feels in many ways like that attempted reboot from four years ago. Both films find a new killer in John Jigsaw’s ashes, albeit one more directly than the other, and both return once more to the slammed door ending the movie. With any luck, that door will remain closed for the foreseeable future.