Spiral Synopsis: Working in the shadow of his father (Samuel L. Jackson), Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock) and his rookie partner (Max Minghella) take charge of an investigation into grisly 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.
Film fans may not agree on the brand’s quality, but Saw has developed an irreplaceable place in our cinematic zeitgeist. The original 2004 breakout spawned a whopping eight-film franchise while essentially owning Halloween over a half-decade span. I have always been a passionate supporter of the franchise’s devilish sensibility, meshing their penchant for shocking bloodshed with a campy story chock-full of ridiculous plot twists.
After the mixed results of 2017’s Jigsaw, the Saw franchise receives an intriguing modern makeover with Spiral. Infused with personable Hollywood icons like Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson, Spiral features the Saw franchise at its most competent and accessible as it plays ode to the first film’s police procedural roots. While that may be a positive for most films, Spiral’s lack of gonzo edge makes for a milquetoast entry for the grindhouse franchise.
The franchise’s seismic shift isn’t without promise. The addition of Chris Rock as the series first movie star benefits the material’s rugged tendencies. His ever-present comedic timing adds a sharp wrinkle to the film’s implausible plot threads. It’s also a joy to see Rock continuing to stretch his dramatic wings, with the actor successfully imbuing much-needed gravitas into his role as an outcast detective.
I also admire the ambitions of Spiral’s decidedly new face. Screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger craft an oft-kilter mixture of humor, horror, and substance amidst the fast-flowing runtime. It’s not the most cohesive mix of tonalities, but the film’s intuitive self-awareness allows the conceits to play off each other while never overwhelming the central narrative. From ridiculous plot twists to hilariously contrived dialogue exchanges, the screenwriters understand the kind of low-brow camp synonymous with the franchise.
Even with those ingredients left intact, Spiral feels markedly less spirited than its verbose predecessors. The Saw films are far more avant-garde than they were ever given credit for, pushing the boundaries of plausibility with death-defying traps and a myriad of bizarrely amusing film techniques (I mean…just look at those screen transitions). Spiral substitutes the violent freneticism in favor of blandly-flavored grittiness.
The decision is even stranger considering series regular Darren Lynn Bousman’s return (the schlocky showman who made his name with the second, third, and fourth entries in the franchise). Bousman works in a few moody tracking shots dripping with atmosphere, but the film’s generally neutered sensibility doesn’t embellish in the gleeful horrors. This trend sadly carries over into the film’s so-so traps. After a blood-soaked opening setpiece, Spiral pushes the franchise’s marquee trait to the sidelines in favor of a busy police narrative.
Reviving the first film’s moderation isn’t necessarily a bad decision. However, the execution isn’t accomplished enough to justify that decision. Stolberg and Goldfinger rely upon too many contrived detective narrative cliches to truly compel on a story front. Where the first Saw successfully repurposed cliches into a taut narrative, Spiral‘s detective veneer lands like a tired CSI re-run (audiences could fill a BINGO card with the number of story cliches). I can’t forget to mention the film’s ham-fisted attempts at social commentary, with ruminations on the police’s problematic culture and abusive tendencies lacking in terms of deft observations and dramatic agency.
Spiral takes one step forward and two steps back for the franchise. I appreciate the willingness to reinvent the franchise’s framework, but the decision doesn’t match the shameless entertainment value behind its beloved predecessors.