CAST: Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, Zoie Palmer, Morgan David Jones, Ali Johnson, Dan Petronijevic, Edie Inksetter, Leila Leigh, Christopher Tai, John Tokatlidis, Genelle Williams
RUNNING TIME: 93 mins
BASICALLY…: A police detective (Rock) investigates a series of murders that eerily resemble the famed Jigsaw Killer…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
There have been some bizarre creative pairings in Hollywood over the years, but even those people couldn’t have predicted that Chris Rock would be the driving force of the latest reboot in the ongoing Saw franchise. When news broke that the star comedian was not only starring in but also executive producing (in addition to drafting the story treatment for) the ninth overall film in the audience-favourite horror series, many assumed it would perhaps incorporate Rock’s heavy sense of humour into a franchise that had long passed the point of actually being scary, so they might as well have a bit more fun with all of the torturous traps the films had become synonymous with.
Instead, to nearly everyone’s surprise, Spiral: From the Book of Saw is much more of a straightforward cop thriller which just so happens to be set in the Saw universe, and while there are times when this bold new direction gives the familiar set-ups a slightly fresher breath of air, it doesn’t entirely work as either a cop movie or even a Saw film.
Set in a non-descriptive city during what appears to be the sunniest, sweatiest summer ever, Rock plays Zeke Banks, a detective who is extremely unpopular in his precinct because, as a cop, he turned in a corrupt officer who had murdered a witness. Despite preferring to work alone, he’s assigned a new partner, rookie detective Schenk (Max Minghella), and soon the two of them are investigating a gruesome series of murders which appear to resemble the pattern of none other than the Jigsaw Killer, despite original mastermind John Kramer being more than dead by this point (and sorry, Saw fans, but Tobin Bell makes zero surprise appearances in this movie). The victims, as it turns out, are all cops in Banks’ precinct, and soon even Zeke’s father – retired police chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson) – gets roped into the mystery, leaving Zeke to pinpoint the culprit before they can do even more damage.
As a cop film, Spiral: From the Book of Saw is draped top to bottom in clichés of the typical police procedural thriller you’d see in the 90s around when Se7en became popular. Rock is playing – say it with me now – a grizzled detective who doesn’t play by the rules, doesn’t get on with any other cops, and despises the idea of having a partner, all of which are stereotypical police traits that this movie just runs with, alongside dialogue you could almost play “Cop Movie Bingo” with; simply count the many times Rock’s character is told he’s too close to the case or whenever he gets into a shouting match with another officer, and you’ll already have a full row. The amount of cop clichés being played so straight, and seemingly without any sense of self-awareness, makes it feel all the more odd that this whole concept comes from the mind of Chris Rock, who is an exceptionally funny and smart performer that nonetheless injects very little of his comedic energy into the material (save from an early tirade about Forrest Gump, one of the few times that Chris Rock actually gets to be, well, Chris Rock). It can be a little hard to buy him as the kind of stock grizzled detective character he’s playing here, but he is at least trying to do something outside of the box with his performance, although other actors like Samuel L. Jackson feel a lot more comfortable spouting this extremely familiar dialogue than Rock is.
It’s one thing to not entirely work as a cop thriller, but for Spiral: From the Book of Saw to fall short on actually being a Saw film is something else entirely. The movie does have the usual traps and excessive gore you’ve come to expect from one of these films – even the film’s opening scene is a sequence that would have fit in perfectly well with any one of the Saw sequels – but not only do they feel less creative than some of the more outrageous mechanisms we’ve seen over the course of this series, but often they are rudely interrupted so that we can go right back to the cop thriller angle which, as we’ve established, is nothing more than a collection of the most standard crime thriller clichés imaginable. I get what Rock and the writers were trying to do here, by setting a slightly new direction that differs greatly to a number of the other Saw movies, but by bringing back director Darren Lynn Bousman (who previously did the second, third and fourth movies) they apparently also wanted to have the same aesthetic as the earlier films, complete with the same quick-cut editing that’s been in the vast majority of them, and so it just looks like yet another one of these things that’s somehow lacking most of the things that made them memorable.
I honestly doubt that most audiences going in wanting either a Saw movie or a straightforward crime thriller will get a whole lot from this film. It’s working with way too many clichés and contrived narratives to be a strong example of the latter, nor does it have many of the thrilling, twisted traps and other series trademarks that people have seen throughout the franchise. In the end, Spiral: From the Book of Saw is more of a failed experiment than a true series revival; they get points for trying something a little different, but it turns out that what they tried doing wasn’t exactly the most thought-out example they could have gone with.
After all of that, who knows where the Saw franchise goes from here? So far, this film hasn’t exactly done great at the box office (even taking the pandemic into consideration), and reviews for it aren’t much better, but there is clearly still an audience for these movies, otherwise they wouldn’t have taken this leap of faith to begin with. Maybe someone out there can truly find a way to make the Saw movies exciting and eventful once more, perhaps by blending other genres like Spiral: From the Book of Saw tried doing. I, for one, would pay good money to see a rom-com set in the Saw universe, or even a superhero movie – any of those would be more interesting than Chris Rock pretending to be a grizzled detective.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Spiral: From the Book of Saw is a failed experiment to blend together a traditional Saw film and a gritty, Se7en-esque crime thriller, working as neither since both elements fall so deep into clichés and familiarity that they end up adding almost nothing new, and wastes talent like Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson on ambitious but ultimately lacking material that should have known early on to declare “game over”.