Whenever I think about the 'Saw' franchise, an exchange from 'Scream 4', another horror series that has managed to persevere for decades, springs to mind:
"Urgh, I saw that in theatres, it sucks. It's not scary, it's gross. I hate all that torture porn shit!"
"Well, I like Jigsaw. I think he kills people very creatively."
"But you don't give a shit who dies because there's no character development."
It appears that with 'Spiral: From the Book of Saw', the 'Saw' franchise has listened to those two quickly-murdered characters, because this instalment gives audiences just that: character development so they do give a shit about who dies. However, that doesn't mean the film those characters are in is particularly good.
Ezekiel 'Zeke' Banks (Chris Rock, 'The Witches') is your classic badass cop: he drives his too-cool car around for work instead of a police van, wears his sunglasses indoors, has more ex-wife and daddy issues than you can poke a stick at, and he doesn't work with a partner. Disgruntled and devastated over the death of one of his friends on the force at the hands of what appears to be a Jigsaw copycat killer, Zeke gets saddled with newbie cop William Schenk (Max Minghella, 'The Social Network'). In any other film that didn't feature a killer with a penchant for sending body parts in Tiffany-blue boxes, their relationship might blossom the way most cop buddies often experience. Soon, more law enforcers lose their lives, and it's clear this copycat killer's agenda may run closer to home than Zeke realises.
It's very rare for a 'Saw' film to make me laugh; with the exception of the first instalment, the series is lazy, overly gory and has overstayed its welcome for at least three films. It would be pretty difficult for even the most skilled actor to break through such a rigid formula, even in a spin-off series, but Chris Rock tries his ass off - and in doing so, is far and away the best thing about the whole film. His performance oscillates between hilarious (a certain line about "riding dick until dusk" had my entire screening laughing) and hilariously over-the-top, his glare getting steelier with each new casualty. It appears the series itself is in on the joke a bit too, using super-2000s effects and zooms that, while cool back then, look downright ridiculous in 2021. Don't be surprised if you find yourself laughing with the film and then at it in the space of five minutes. Samuel L. Jackson's ('Spider-Man: Far From Home') film appearances in years of late have begun to feel more and more like spent-three-days-on-set paychecks, and while this is obviously the case with 'Spiral', he appears to be having at least a bit of fun in the handful of scenes he's in. Even if it's all a bit cliché, at least it's camp.
And herein lies the problem with 'Spiral' and the 'Saw' franchise at large: even if they are clever, the kills are just that little bit too sadistic to be enjoyable. It's hard for general audiences to laugh if they're covering their eyes (even I, with a pretty strong stomach, found myself cowering at a certain contraption involving the removal of multiple appendages). While the attempt to build a story allows audiences to catch their breath - with one rare exception that pays homage to the first film - the series still doesn't seem to know how to balance gore with goofiness in a way that, say, the 'Final Destination' series did so well. It does end on an absolutely wonderful, largely unresolved cliffhanger, no doubt a tactic to spawn sequels and leave viewers hungry for more.
Even if 'Spiral' isn't the most original film, it holds its audience interest for long enough and is just memorable enough to justify its existence.
It's hard to ignore how low-budget 'Spiral' looks when it's not setting up elaborate kills, which is shocking considering the film had roughly US$20 million to spend. The police precinct scenes look like they were ripped straight from an episode of 'Law and Order', right down to the super-warm filter often thrown over the top. This may be, however, by design; at the risk of giving away too many plot details, much of 'Spiral' hinges on the corruption within the American police system, attempting to point out flaws that have for so long benefitted from television copaganda. As a result, it feels like a strange response to have Chris Rock as apparently the only cop with morals, especially given how much of a spotlight has been given to racially-motivated police violence in the last year. While some crooked (white) police officers face horrible ends, the film's implication in the final act that the root of this corruption began with a person of colour leaves an incredibly bad taste in the mouth. 'Spiral' wants to tap into current cultural discourse to milk it for a gorefest without actually saying anything about it (which I guess is a bit too much to ask of a 'Saw' film in the first place).
Even if 'Spiral' isn't the most original film ever made, it holds audience interest for long enough, and its kills are just memorable enough to justify its existence beyond a simple cash grab, which is far more than can be said for some of the franchise's more recent instalments. Come for a breath of fresh air from a long-stale franchise, stay for a memorable Chris Rock performance and the hope of better sequels to come.