The long-running horror franchise gets a prestige-adjacent update with an A-list cast, but it’s not enough to overcome the series’ massive hurdles.
If you happen to stumble upon the Wikipedia page for Spiral, the ninth and newest feature film in the Saw franchise, you find a goldmine full of stories, exaggerations, and words strung together that you hardly believe are real. Chris Rock, the star and executive producer of Spiral, ran into Michael Burns, the Vice Chairman of Lionsgate, at a friend’s wedding in Brazil. They chatted about the horror genre, with Rock expressing intent to take his career on a different path.
Lionsgate CEO Joe Drake has a slew of quotes praising Rock’s ingenuity. The Organ Donor had been the working title. Director Darren Lynn Bousman, a welcomed face (at least by fans) of the Saw franchise, cut a scene because it was “too gnarly.” And the Spiral Twitter account has been aiding all of this hype in the days and weeks leading up to the film’s release, garnering interest from both fans and those that usually stray from the gruesome nature of the horror franchise. Rock even gets compared to Eddie Murphy.
The Saw franchise, now 17 years into existence, continues due to an almost-excess of fandom and consistent box office success. Spiral both distances itself and attempts to keep building upon the original ideas of Leigh Whannell and James Wan. Made from a budget of $20 million, a shocking uptick from the original’s $1.2 million budget, Bousman’s fourth film in the series hopes to move on from the antics of Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw, the first film not to feature the actor. Instead, it focuses on Rock’s Detective Zeke Banks, the son of a former police captain (Samuel Jackson as Marcus Banks) and a cop that always has chosen to do the right thing.
Sidelined after snitching on a dirty cop, one who killed an innocent witness that witnessed another policeman murdering a suspect, Zeke’s career has become static, despite his ability to wear sunglasses and suspenders each and every day of the year. His character opens with a quip about how “Tom Hanks is a straight pimp,” soon after going into detail how women only cheat in the daytime and how pilates doesn’t actually exist.
During any moments of downtime, Rock, using the vessel of Zeke, goes into comedy mode, flipping a switch from the grisly nature of this film into a half-hour special on Netflix on the corruption of the police department, aptly titled “All Bad Apples” or “The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree: Chris Rock Live in Chicago.”
For the majority of Spiral, Rock acts in a different movie than the rest of his surrounding cast members, brooding with a scour on his face, eyes narrowed, deep in his thoughts about this mixed-up game of a Jigsaw copycat killer. He’s certainly giving a performance, though it borders on caricature of previous detectives in the grizzled-cop canon. Paired with a young, top police recruit Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella), Zeke (who always works alone, of course) must stop a serial killer who’s hell-bent on cleaning up the Metro Police Department.
A bloated budget can’t save the film from faulty writing and an unentertaining narrative structure.
One by one, Zeke’s colleagues fall victim to one of Jigsaw Jr.’s games, all of which remain brutal to watch for the faint of heart, spliced together with close-ups, gears turning, and a body part inches from being ripped off.
Minor storylines with major themes crop up throughout Spiral, unattended to after a single scene or mention, highlights of which include Zeke’s relationship to his father, his impending divorce, and the film’s misguided look to police corruption and violence. Through each of these side plots, the dialogue could be described as paint-by-numbers. As Zeke sees his soon-to-be ex-wife, she simply says, “Zeke,” to which he responds, “Lisa,” in clear homage to the thousands of movies that came before Spiral. Any scene that doesn’t include a game from the newest iteration of the Jigsaw impersonator contains minute traction or importance to the narrative, which itself lacks propulsion outside of the next imminent death of a moral-lacking cop.
Spiral still holds the belief of “Not All Cops,” a stance that can be heard by monologues from both Rock and Minghella about the state of the city’s force, a collection of men and women that hold little in common with our blameless hero in Zeke. He sits on a pedestal, largely an uncomplicated presence that only keeps our attention when he’s screaming at other cops or looking at gruesome photos of pig-themed, cut-off limbs. A bloated budget can’t save the film from faulty writing and an unentertaining narrative structure, rewarding the gruesome, unwinnable games that the Jigsaw look-alike wants to play, none of which capture the intrigue, or even fun, of previous films.
Replacing Billy the Puppet, a Jigsaw-lite villain, or brandishing the film in the shine and starpower of Rock and Jackson don’t equate to amnesia of the previous eight films in the Saw franchise, a string of projects that have felt more formulaic, cash-focused, and hackneyed over the last decade. Spiral doesn’t reinvent the franchise, it keeps it turning towards a money-filled obscurity, despite valiant, if not odd, efforts from its cast. Themes of loyalty and brotherhood (and sisterhood) within police departments run without supervision or care, ending with a message that feels muddled, botched, and unmistakable in its inability to be unclear. Spiral should be the last film of this franchise, but like Jigsaw, this story just won’t end.
Spiral opens the Book of Saw in theaters May 14th.