The Saw franchise did two things when it first launched with Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell stuck together in a filthy bathroom: 1) it launched what would eventually be termed the “torture porn” genre; and 2) it set itself apart from that same genre. As opposed to films like Hostel and The Devil’s Rejects, which killed for the sake of killing, Saw gave John Kramer (Tobin Bell), a strong motive for what he did to his victims. Though the franchise ultimately devolved into a state of torture porn, the original three films, and 2018s Jigsaw, highlighted how John, aka Jigsaw, gave his victims a chance to redeem themselves and live a better life. This doesn’t condone his methods, but at least there was a reason other than simple blood lust. Spiral: From the Book of Saw, attempts to expand the Saw universe with a story that tries to emulate the reason for killing its inevitable victims, but still borders a little too close to what makes torture porn itself such an uncomfortable genre.
John Kramer has been dead for some time, and it seems Jigsaw has been safely put into the past when Spiral picks up with the death of a detective who’s accused by what may or may not be a Jigsaw copycat of testifying against those who have been wrongfully accused. Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) is given the case after the killer sends clues directly to him, threatening to continue killing cops unless Banks help fix the entire law enforcement system. At the same time, Banks is saddled with a new young rookie, Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella).
The story here is very minimal when it comes to the mystery of who’s actually performing the killings and why. Unlike most of the other Saw films, there isn’t enough intrigue to keep us invested in discovering what the big reveal or twist might be at the end of the film. The moment it was revealed at the end of Saw that John was in the room with the two men the whole time pretending to be dead was, forgive the pun, a killer of a twist. It was hard to live up to, for sure, but the majority of the other films did a pretty good job of spinning a yarn of deception you never saw coming. Spiral, on the other hand, doesn’t try hard enough and instead slips into a rote ending that doesn’t do much to explain the overall film.
The copycat here is a bit of a mix of both John and Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) from the latter half of the series. He gives the victims a way out, but does so in a way that will almost guarantee their death, either because they don’t have enough time to complete whatever task needs to be completed, or what they are tasked to do to escape will cause them to eventually bleed out before they can get help. It’s a sadistic game that covers for itself with false hope, which John, and the original films, were never about.
It doesn’t help that the editing is a bit frenetic, especially when it comes to the murderous games. Director Darren Lynn Bousman still includes the series’s signature cuts and camera movements, however, when it comes to the deaths, which compared with the majority of the other films, are a bit sparse, Bousman seems to hold back a bit, unwilling to truly go the distance. I’m also still confused by why one of the deaths is setup and then not actually shown until Banks shows up on the scene after the fact. It’s unnecessary edit decisions such as this that pull you from the chemistry makeup of the film.
Stepping away from comparing it to the other films, Rock does give a good, well-rounded performance as the disgruntled cop who’s been ostracized from the department because he once ratted out a fellow cop for murdering a witness in cold blood. Even though it was the right thing to do, loyalty to the blue overwhelms integrity within the department. You’ll be heavily disappointed if you were expecting the typical comedic Rock, but I felt pushing him to tone down his natural loud and sometimes exasperated nonsense for a more subtle, hard and abrasive performance was a breath of fresh air.
Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson pops in as Banks’s father, who doesn’t have a whole lot to do except be a possible red-herring in the search for the killer. Whether he is or not I’ll leave that for you to discover, but including Jackson and giving him hardly anything to do feels a little disingenuous, especially when the two trailers that played right before the film both featured Jackson in his typical motherf^&%$ roles.
Comparing the film to its Saw brethren, Spiral: From the Book of Saw is neither here nor there. It wants to be its own thing without leaving behind what made people fans of the original, but can’t ever grasp exactly how to make either side work. But because of Rock, and because the creativity behind the deaths are interesting on their own merit, the film squeaks by with just enough blood to keep the franchise alive, if not heading dangerously toward life support.
My Grade: B-
The actors do a decent job in keeping our interest in Those Who Wish Me Dead (especially Medina Senghore, who kills it as an expectant wife who gets inadvertently sucked into the action), but not even Angelina Jolie or Jon Bernthal can sustain much of the momentum of the simple plot that leaves us wanting more on almost every level imaginable. Listen to my (Spoiler) review of Those Who Wish Me Dead on Ramblin’ Reviews. C+
Next week, new movies include Dream Horse, The Dry, Final Account and Army of the Dead (Netflix). If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.