As a child, I truly believed the pinnacle of horror was the Saw series. As someone who feared horror films up until age 13-ish, it was difficult for me to distinguish between something that was actually scary, and something that was simply gory. With their yearly Halloween releases, I thought there was no bigger test of your might as a horror fan than to see a Saw film. Growing up, I realized that despite my deep nostalgia for the Saw films, they were rather empty in their later entries. Still, there was always something that felt untapped with the series, like all they needed was a clearer vision with a new slant on the material. They tried to mine magic in the quasi-reboot Jigsaw (which I actually kind of enjoyed), but its efforts proved relatively fruitless in restoring the series to its former glory. But for its next entry/spin-off/reboot/whatever the hell it is, Lionsgate has enlisted the help of Saw mega-fan Chris Rock in reinvigorating the admittedly tired series.
Officer Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) is a homicide detective for Philadelphia’s police department plagued with the “dishonor” of being a cop on the force, let alone the son of the former police chief, Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson), who once turned in another cop for an act of police brutality. His reputation has never recovered. After a fellow detective is found dead having fallen victim to a Jigsaw-like trap, Zeke and his partner, William Schenk (Max Minghella), realize that a new copycat killer is beginning their rampage and the police department are the targets. Zeke must find a way past his tarnished reputation and mend bridges to save the lives of those around him.
If Spiral just sounds like Saw IX with a revamped cast, you would be right! Despite the bigger budget and glossier look to the whole ordeal, Spiral really is just another Saw movie at the end of it all, and it’s not a particularly good one. So much of the film’s marketing has been focused on the “new” nature of it and how this is taking the Saw series in a new direction when in reality it’s doing nothing of the sort. And perhaps its worst sin is that amongst all the terrible dialogue and sickening color grading, there is nary a trap in this film that is as remotely interesting as anything that came before it.
However, what stuck with me the most about Spiral was Rock’s performance, which is genuinely on another level of misguided. Rock subscribes to the school of drama that simply says that when things get serious, you just squint a lot; the more serious the thing is, the more intense your squint is. But between Rock seemingly forgetting his sunglasses in every dramatic scene, there’s just a wooden nature to his entire being that makes it seem like he was uncomfortable to be there. Jackson is much better off in the film, though given peanuts in regard to his character and the substance he gets to work with. Mostly because there really is no substance here, or at least not any successful substance.
It’s a Saw film, so I don’t mind if it’s relatively empty on the narrative front, because I’m not there for a rousing police drama, or a story about an estranged father and son, but Spiral builds on so many of these narrative tropes and then completely abandons them by the film’s incredibly abrupt finale. Whether it’s trying to dig into Zeke’s personal life, or trying to form a remotely cohesive, let alone thought-provoking, statement about police violence in America, it simply wastes our time and eats up the film’s thankfully-short runtime with fodder and leaves us with not much else when it actually comes time to throw down.
Speaking of that said “throwing down,” Spiral’s cardinal sin simply comes from the fact that the traps on display here aren’t particularly interesting or creative. By the later films, the Saw series went off the rails with the ridiculousness of its traps, but there was a twisted charm that came in those almost comically convoluted traps. There’s a simplification to the traps here, and after 17 years of Saw traps, simplicity simply doesn’t cut it. Perhaps if the film in-between these less-than-stellar traps was even remotely competent, it could be looked past, but when both elements fail so spectacularly, there’s really no excuse.
I’m really perplexed by the approach that was taken to Spiral. They wanted to do something new, so they got a flashy new cast, but retained the writers of Jigsaw, the director of Saw II-IV, and the producers of all of the previous films. I’m confused as to how a recognizable face at the center of the film somehow justifies something “new” when everything else is so entirely familiar and wooden. There’s no life to this, no soul at the center of it, and it does nothing to expand upon or redeem the tired series. It feels like a half-assed Saw fan-fiction written in 2006 come to life, and that’s exactly where it needs to stay. It’s time for the Saw series to rest.
In select theaters May 14th, 2021.
Final Score: 1 out of 5.