The Saw series isn’t exactly the most precious of horror franchises. As the various follow-ups to James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s bizarre, impossibly tense 2004 original — which, let’s not forget, was a Sundance film — got gorier and sillier, they also eventually lost sight of the idea that had made the Jigsaw Killer’s project so grotesquely compelling in the first place. His was meant to be a kind of self-help sadism, with those sick torture games and old-timey murder contraptions all supposedly serving the noble goal of teaching flawed people the errors of their ways and helping them grow, albeit ironically. (Of course, Jigsaw’s victims rarely grew; more often than not, they failed their tests and wound up as piles of entrails on shit-smeared warehouse floors.) The first several Saw films mostly stuck to the plan — and the third remains an inspired marvel of lunacy — but eventually it all got too ridiculous and cruel and lost any sense of fun. Thus did one of the more sophisticated and imaginative horror films of the past 20 years wind up inspiring some of the century’s sleazier horror sequels.
In other words, a Saw reboot need not have any particular reverence for the series itself. If we must have more of them, these movies could use some reinvention, so long as you do due genre diligence and throw in a few gruesome scenes of people desperately trying to escape mechanical scalpers or swinging pendulum blades or human-size ovens or whatnot. Spiral: From the Book of Saw, delivers mildly on the torture-porn front, but its tone and focus are decidedly different. It resolves to fix this series’ clichés with a different set of clichés.
It does have star power, however, which is refreshing. One thing that really dragged down some of the later Saw movies was that the legacy of the original Jigsaw (played by the great Tobin Bell, whose pale, disaffected demeanor added a whole new dimension of cruelty to the character) had been taken over by some of the least charismatic actors in the world. Spiral, thankfully, has a fairly energetic cast. Chris Rock plays the cynical Zeke Banks, a veteran cop whose willingness to expose his corrupt colleagues years earlier earned him the scorn of the entire police department. Now, a new series of Jigsaw-inspired killings is targeting the force, and Zeke has to lead the investigation, even though nobody trusts him and many of the victims hate him. The bitter, wisecracking Zeke is paired up with wide-eyed rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella), and their comic back-and-forth, while predictable, is fun, especially for a series that has so rarely bothered to build characters or offer any sharp dialogue.
Reportedly, Spiral came about partly thanks to Rock’s own desire to appear in a Saw movie, and he added material to Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger’s script, which makes some sense: The levity Rock brings makes for a nice contrast to the grim, stripped-down goings on. The actor is on less-sure ground, however, whenever Zeke has to mourn or express outrage over a dead fellow cop … but then again, nobody watches Saw movies for their tender explorations of grief. It’s also nice to see Samuel L. Jackson show up as our hero’s father, a foulmouthed retired police chief who still seems heavily involved with the department and likes meddling in his son’s affairs — yet another mildly welcome cliché.
What about the traps, though? To what extent is this latest Saw (which was directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, veteran of many a Saw) an actual Saw, which after all is what people who like Saw want to see? The sadism in Spiral is relatively toned down, with the various implements of impalement and slaughter presented briefly, which makes the film not so much a reinvention as a dilution. Thanks to a weirdly half-hearted flashback structure, these sequences also feel drained of suspense. (We do, however, get more scenes of this new Jigsaw killer stalking and catching the victims, which was always secretly the scariest part of the first several Saws.)
By centering on Zeke’s investigation, Spiral winds up feeling more like an ordinary serial-killer procedural — one of those many Se7en and Silence of the Lambs knockoffs we had throughout the 1990s and 2000s. That’s a reversal of the usual Saw formula, which typically just offers glimpses of the cops doing their thing while giving pride of place to the spectacle of people trying not to hack off their own limbs or gouge out their own eyes or fill five pint-beakers with their own blood. Of course, because the killer this time is exclusively targeting cops, that means we know the characters a bit more before they meet their inevitably ghastly ends.
Which all begs the question: Is Spiral the first “Blue Lives Matter” Saw movie? Not really. Though the victims are cops, and the heroes are also cops, it all ends up in a not-too-shocking place, revealing a not-too-shocking killer with a not-too-shocking motive. (I’m not giving too much away; besides, you can see any “twists” in this one coming from miles away.) To be clear, a reimagining and revival of the Saw movies might have been intriguing, but Spiral offers no real new spins on the idea, and it certainly doesn’t complicate the odd, ever-shifting morality of these movies. It just weakens what was already there, even if it’s occasionally enlivened by the presence of some familiar faces. You get your stars, but you also have to suffer through a dopey plot that’s more tired than usual. The choice, as they say, is yours.