Spiral: From the Book of Saw is the ninth film in the Saw universe, and an attempt to reboot a franchise long thought moribund. It’s been over a decade since the torture porn franchise came to a conclusion with Saw: The Final Chapter, although there was the disappointing attempt at a belated reboot with 2017’s Jigsaw, which saw Tobin Bell reprise his role as John Kramer, the sadistic serial killer who created diabolical devices. With Jigsaw dead it seemed as though the franchise had finally run its race. Not so.
Comic Chris Rock, a fan of the franchise created by Australian filmmakers Leigh Whannell and James Wan in 2004, suggested the idea for this sequel/reboot to the head of production company Lionsgate. Thus, we get this ninth film in the series, and while the script from Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger (Jigsaw) has some thematic links to the original franchise, Spiral tries to reposition the series and take the concept in a different direction. And it is just possible that Rock is looking for a box office hit to regenerate his career.
Although Jigsaw is long dead the city is still haunted by his legacy. Detective Ezekial Banks (played by Rock) seems to be the only honest cop in a department rife with corruption (not quite a black Serpico). Over a decade ago he “snitched” on a fellow policeman and has now become something of a pariah in the department. Mistrustful and bitter, he prefers to work alone. But when it seems that a Jigsaw copycat is killing corrupt policemen, Banks is made part of the investigating team. He is assigned a partner in the form of rookie detective William Schenk (Max Mingella, the son of Oscar winning filmmaker Anthony) and they offer up an odd couple dynamic as they try to uncover the identity of the copycat killer.
Instead of the spooky doll Billy of the original, here the killer uses a grotesque pig’s head as his signature – after all, he is targeting corrupt police. And how is Zeke’s father Marcus (Samuel L Jackson), the legendary and respected former head of the police department and a tough as nails cop himself) involved?
The dingy settings, such as abandoned warehouses and a blighted cityscape, and a deliberately muted colour palette give the film a bleak tone. There are some gory scenes here involving dismembered body parts that are not for the faint hearted and will have some in the audience wincing. Director Darren Lynn Bousman has directed three previous instalments in the Saw franchise, and he provides a sense of continuity to the film’s gritty visual aesthetic. However, his pacing here is a little uneven. Cinematographer Jordan Oram (who has shot many music videos for Drake) gives the material its dark and moody tone.
But Spiral is not completely successful. The film’s attempt to explore some weighty themes and provide criticism of police brutality and the so-called blue wall of solidarity gives the material a veneer of topicality but it never really strives for relevance. And the fact that Banks has been left in the same squad that resents him for nearly a decade stretches credibility. His actions and the resentment of the other officers has created a toxic workplace environment and it is unlikely that the police department would have tolerated the situation for too long before moving some of the officers to other precincts to resolve the situation. And the juxtaposition of gory tortures with quick quips leaves a nasty aftertaste.
And Rock, who is also credited as one of the executive producers, seems terribly miscast here in a darker and grittier role than he normally plays. He delivers a one-note performance as Banks, who is full of sarcastic insults and bitter resentment, and doesn’t play well with others. His performance is shrill and full of shouting and swearing and one-liners and pop cultural references. Some of his early dialogue sounds as if he is rehearsing material for a comic monologue for his next stand-up performance. Jackson has such a filmography behind him, it overshadows his role here. Nonetheless he brings a glib quality to his performance as Banks’ father.
Spiral is a little more engaging than the last couple of films in the franchise and will probably please fans of this sort of thing.
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Greg King has had a life long love of films. He has been reviewing popular films for over 15 years. Since 1994, he has been the film reviewer for BEAT magazine. His reviews have also appeared in the Herald Sun newspaper, S-Press, Stage Whispers, and a number of other magazines, newspapers and web sites. Greg contributes to The Blurb on film