Darren Lynn Bousman
Chris Rock - Detective Zeke Banks
Max Minghella - Detective William Schenk
Samuel L. Jackson - Marcus Banks
Marisol Nichols - Captain Angie Garza
Daniel Petronijevic - Detective Marv “Boz” Bozwick
Genre - Horror/Mystery/Thriller/Crime
Running Time - 93 Minutes
Working in the shadow of an esteemed police veteran, brash Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks and his rookie partner take charge of a grisly investigation into murders that are eerily reminiscent of the city’s gruesome past. Unwittingly entrapped in a deepening mystery, Zeke finds himself at the center of the killer’s morbid game.
With the return of the SAW franchise with SAW X this weekend, I’ve been going back and rewatching the entire franchise from the beginning. If you’ve been following this blog for many years, you know I’m a big fan of the first three films, as well as the surprisingly solid SAW VI [the one dealing with health insurance]. The rest of the installments stem from being a bit above average to just dull or awful, with convoluted storylines and messing with the timeline to repetitive effects. While not many loved it, I thought 2018’s JIGSAW was a step in the right direction after the awful SAW 3D, which wrapped things up in a clumsy, cheap note. But the film didn’t set the box office on fire, so Lionsgate decided to go into a different direction for the series’ ninth installment.
2021’s SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW is the only film in the franchise I hadn’t watched prior to rewatching every single film in the series this month. It’s not like I didn’t have a curiosity about it. After all, getting both Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson in a SAW movie will pique anyone’s interest. What amazes me is that SPIRAL was an idea by Rock himself, being a huge SAW fan and wanting to contribute to the franchise by taking things into a different direction while still maintaining elements that make the franchise what it is. Jackson joined because horror wasn’t a genre he was specifically known for and wanted to try things he hadn’t done. Other actors, who were fans of the franchise, won out roles that weren’t meant for them by impressing Lionsgate executives.
With this much level of care and focus, you’d think SPIRAL would kick off a new era for the SAW series with some self-contained stories not involving John Kramer aka “The Jigsaw Killer”. Making SPIRAL more of a police procedural and mystery with “torture porn” elements included should have brought new life into a franchise that was, let’s be honest, long in the tooth by this point and had pretty much milked itself dry. Unfortunately, SPIRAL had a few things going against it.
One, it was released in the summer of 2021. Theaters had just started to really open again after COVID-19 had pretty much shut everything down for over a year. People were still too scared to head inside a theater with other people, feeling a movie was not a good reason to get a life-threatening illness - especially when vaccines had just started to roll out for it.
Two, there probably wasn’t much interest in another SAW film at the time. Despite the stunt casting and a new take on a tired story, fans probably figured they could just wait until the film hit streaming and digital.
And three, SPIRAL isn’t that good of a movie. Critics were mixed on it. Fans didn’t really have much positive feedback to provide. And after watching it, SPIRAL is a film that has a ton of potential and interesting ideas, but doesn’t really know what to do with any of them.
After two years of hyping myself to finally sit down and watch SPIRAL, I couldn’t believe how disappointed I felt once the film concluded. There was so much potential here to make the film something special within the franchise. Considering the capable cast, a returning director who helmed two of the best entries in the series, and a good idea to reboot a tired franchise, SPIRAL should have been better than it actually is. While I don’t think it’s the worst entry in the series [it’s super close though], even the worst movie [SAW 3D] had a goofy, awful charm about it that makes it sort of rewatchable. I don’t think SPIRAL even has that, despite the film being better made.
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way. I appreciate and respect the fact that SPIRAL wants to be its own thing, while taking what was established into a new direction. It’s definitely the right move to make, considering that the main villain has been long dead and all these apprentices that were never revealed until the story finds it convenient just makes the newer installments lesser than the films that came before it. Having a copycat Jigsaw killer with their own puppet, going after corrupt cops for a believable reason that’s revealed in the final act, is a fascinating idea that could have set up several films. You can kind of understand the villain’s motives, which could have been extended into other movies if SPIRAL had done better. While the script itself isn’t great, the narrative idea is interesting and should have elevated the franchise.
I also thought the traps, while not as elaborate as previous ones in the SAW series, weren’t too bad. Considering this was a copycat who wanted revenge on crooked police officers, there is less focus on morality and trying to help others appreciate their lives. So these traps were definitely intended to really hurt, or even murder, the victims. I thought the first trap with the tongue was good, especially the gory aftermath. I even liked the glass one near the end. The rest were fine, I guess. The wax one was kind of lame, but the trap that stretched out parts of the body was an interesting concept. These were probably the weakest traps in the entire series, but I like the intent for each one.
I also thought some of the cast were good in their roles. Samuel L. Jackson was probably the best, playing a subtle version of the role he usually plays. He’s not in the film a whole lot, but makes the most of every appearance. And his acting in the film’s final act is pretty good. I also liked Riverdale’s Marisol Nichols as the police captain. She had the right mix of toughness and vulnerability that made her believable. And Max Minghella was good as the rookie detective who unfortunately gets caught up in this whole copycat scenario. He carried himself well for the most part.
As for the rest, what the hell happened here? The screenplay is not good at all, with cringey dialogue and the biggest group of unlikable characters I’ve seen in this series yet. Despite Chris Rock’s Zeke supposedly being the protagonist of the film, he comes across as bitter, overly angry and just a person you would never want to know. I understand bad things have happened to him due to his crooked co-workers, but there’s no sympathy for a man who acts like a jerk to pretty much everyone. Even when he’s given choices to be a better person, he still acts like a prick. If Rock had intended his character to be the main hero of a new trilogy or something, then I’m glad SPIRAL didn’t do well at the box office.
Let’s not even talk about his co-workers, who all hate Zeke for snitching on one of their own. For police officers, they only care about themselves and their brotherhood rather than doing the right thing and helping their lead detective solve the mystery of a new serial killer ruining lives. None of them are likable, always acting or looking shifty as hell. In fact, most of the detectives in this franchise seem like the worst people to know in this universe. None of these characters have any depth either, which makes me not care about any of them. The only likable person is the rookie Schenk, because he genuinely cares about solving this mystery and listens to Zeke to make that happen. It makes him stick out from the rest.
It also doesn’t help that you can solve the mystery within the first half hour of the movie. I pretty much called who the new Jigsaw was pretty early on, with only the motive being questioned. For a movie trying to build a mystery and shock its audience with a twist in the final act, it’s very underwhelming when you call it almost at the start. I thought the motivation and reasoning for the copycat was pretty good, but I wish I was more surprised by who it was.
I also thought Darren Lynn Bousman’s direction wasn’t all that good either. I’m really surprised since I enjoyed his previous films in the franchise, as well as REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA. But I wasn’t feeling it here. The editing is really weird, especially the ending of the film that pissed me off so much, I actually lowered the original score I was planning on giving this movie. The most action-oriented scenes don’t feel exciting. The traps aren’t shot in a way that would make you cringe or feel a certain way other than pretty bored. There’s like no tension or suspense at all, which is terrible for a mystery-thriller. I thought the gorier stuff was shot well and the quieter moments were stronger than most. But as a complete movie, it felt very off to me. Maybe that was intentional to make it feel separate from the main SAW films while maintaining its position as part of the series. I just found Bousman’s direction bland, which is alarming because I think he’s one of the better directors to work on this franchise.
As for Chris Rock, I really wanted to like him in the main role of Detective Zeke. But I think he tried too hard to be this bad ass cop that it made his performance unintentionally amusing for all the wrong reasons. When he tries to act tough, it doesn’t feel real. It’s like he’s doing a skit on Saturday Night Live or something. His attempts at humor feel really dated. A TWILIGHT joke, really? In 2021? Even when he tries to act afraid, something about it just comes across as phony to me. I do think he has good moments with Marisol Nichols, Samuel L. Jackson and Max Minghella, only because he’s acting natural in those quieter one-on-one scenes. While I appreciate Rock for wanting to be part of a series he loved and his attempt to create something fresh to keep the franchise going for a new generation, I think he was severely miscast in the lead role.
And despite being part of the SAW series, I thought SPIRAL felt pretty tame considering having traps that were more gruesome than the ones in JIGSAW. At least JIGSAW had a constant energy going for it, keeping me engaged the entire time. SPIRAL seems to be figuring out its own identity throughout its runtime, which doesn’t make for a pleasant experience watching it.
THE FINAL HOWL
Despite a capable cast, a director who helmed two of the better installments, and a story idea that could have been the focus of future entries if it had succeeded commercially, SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW just comes across as a massive disappointment. I respect Chris Rock and Lionsgate for wanting to take the series into a new, fresher direction while maintaining what makes the franchise what it is. I appreciate the producers for wanting to build a new mystery that builds on The Jigsaw Killer. While probably the weakest traps in the franchise, I still like most of the concepts and thought the aftermath of each were pretty memorable. And some of the actors [Samuel L. Jackson, Marisol Nichols and Max Minghella] were quite good in their respective roles.
But man, SPIRAL has a disappointing mystery you can solve within a half hour of the movie. Ninety-five percent of the characters are so unlikable, including the film’s really frustrating main character, that you don’t care about any of them. Darren Lynn Bousman’s direction isn’t the greatest either. With odd editing, no suspense or tension [this is a thriller, right?], and an ending that made me so angry that it caused me to lower my original score, this is surprisingly not Bousman’s best turn as a filmmaker. And Chris Rock, despite him trying to play things as serious and tough as possible, just doesn’t come across as believable as a detective who is trying to solve a crime without much help from his crooked co-workers. This is one of the biggest miscasts for a lead actor I’ve seen in quite a while.
Thankfully the hype and positive reception to SAW X has kept my appreciation for this franchise intact, because SPIRAL almost destroyed that once those end credits rolled. Close to the worst film in the series, as far as I’m concerned. The epitome of wasted potential.
1.5 Howls Outta 4
(4 out of 10)