The longer they continue, the less so many movie franchises have to offer. Filmmakers simply cannot keep doing the same things over and over again expecting the same amount of success – the law of diminishing returns sets in. The “Saw” franchise put out seven movies, one annually, from 2004 to 2010. Perhaps running on fumes towards the end of that span, it attempted a rejuvenation in 2017 with an eighth entry, “Jigsaw,” and now is back again with a new offshoot, “Spiral: From the Book of Saw.” Although this new movie, which stars Chris Rock, is within the “Saw” universe and utilizes some of the well-known elements of the franchise, it unquestionably exists at a distance from those earlier works. In fact, with a few changes it could be wholly divorced from the larger series entirely (whether that’s a boon or a hindrance depends on your point of view).
Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed the second, third, and fourth installments of the franchise is back once more helming “Spiral.” Centering on Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Rock), the screenplay is from Josh Stolberg & Peter Goldfinger, and finds our lead to be one of the few good cops on a force riddled with bad ones. It is for that reason that the killer, whether he’s the original Jigsaw or a copycat, seeks Zeke out.
As we learn early on, years before the main events of this film, Zeke turned in his partner, Peter Dunleavy (Patrick McManus), after Pete crossed the line. Zeke’s standing up and doing the right thing cost him the respect, friendship, and help of his peers. Now paired with a new rookie, William (Max Minghella), Zeke quickly finds himself following the trail set out by a killer who has taken the life of a cop. Always a step or two behind whatever disgusting plans the killer has laid out, we follow Zeke on the case.
It is a simple setup, but one that largely works, and does so because Rock brings his all to it. As he discusses the case with William; his father/former head of the department, Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson); his current boss, Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols); or any of the other detectives, Rock offers up his usual hard-edged wit and intensity. He is a pleasure to watch, even as everything around him is rather disgusting.
Yes, one of the hallmarks of the franchise is back – the truly gory Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions in which people are placed by the killer. Said unlucky souls are generally given the choice between losing a body part and losing their lives in the traps. The amount of blood spilt in “Spiral” is large, and that is sure to please the franchise’s fanbase.
What doesn’t work as well, visually speaking, is the film’s taking place in the middle of a July heatwave. There are fans running in the background in some scenes and some minor amount of sweat occasionally on faces, but by and large we’re supposed to understand it’s summer (outside of people saying as much) because the image is tinted an orangish yellow (or maybe a yellowish orange). Rather than actually conveying heat though, all it offers is the sense that the film has been tinted an orangish yellow (or, again, maybe a yellowish orange).
At least there is a lot to distract the audience from the tinting – “Spiral” isn’t dull by any stretch of the imagination. Like this paragraph, however, the movie is constructed in somewhat awkward fashion. The repeated flashbacks to earlier moments in Zeke’s career are inserted in what feels like haphazard fashion. Additionally, various characters’ tendency to disappear may have the goal of implying things to the audience (either true or false, no spoilers here), but tend to strain the credibility of the film as opposed to making it more gripping.
One of the biggest moments with which this critic has trouble is not the structure of “Spiral,” nor its climactic reveal, nor anything else which appears to be a major incident. Instead, it is a sequence in which Zeke and William storm a drug dealer’s apartment without a warrant. The killer sees Zeke as an honest cop. Zeke sees Zeke as an honest cop. The rest of the department sees him as a rat because he didn’t cover for a dirty cop. But, in this scene with the drug dealer, Zeke breaks more than one law. It might vaguely echo what we see the first time we meet the detective, but it goes against much of what we are supposed to understand about how he operates.
Although an argument could be made that he’s finally been pushed too far, to espouse such a view feels rather weak. Instead, it is a very out of character sequence and rather jarring. Is the film commenting that all cops, no matter how they first appear, break the law? I would argue not. I would argue that it’s simply an inconsistent moment which might not matter that much if the whole story didn’t revolve around Zeke’s honesty. The story, however, does revolve around it and so the moment does matter.
It is the sort of instance that causes the viewer to start to pull apart pieces of the movie to see how it is made to fit together and wonder a little bit more about the seams and cracks. What else doesn’t work? What else doesn’t make sense? Where else should we be looking for issues?
The good thing to note for “Spiral” is that even if there are a few such places (and there are), they aren’t terribly numerous. Rock and the traps are enough to help propel the movie forward from one scene to the next as we all try to piece together the truth about this killer. Viewers can definitely arrive there before the movie offers up its reveal, but there’s still enough happening that it gets away with it.
So, does “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” show a way forward for the franchise? Maybe not in the long term if it opts to head down the potential sequel route it leaves open, but, it, in and of itself, works. There are several nods to the franchise for those steeped in what came before without this movie requiring any specific knowledge from those earlier entries in order to watch. It’s not for the queasy or faint of heart, but then, who thought it would be? No, it’s not your standard “Saw,” but then it wasn’t ever intended to be, was it?
photo credit: Lionsgate