As film fans, there’s always a handful of films that we allow to pass us by. This isn’t usually a comment on their quality or our willingness to enjoy them – sometimes, we’re just a little late to the party.
A spin-off/reboot of the perhaps unjustly beloved Saw franchise, Spiral – bizarrely subtitled From the Book of Saw – continues the excessively convoluted gore of its predecessors with a new cast of characters. Starring Chris Rock as Detective Zeke Banks, an unpopular cop tasked with investigating a string of grisly police murders, Spiral puts an interesting spin on Saw‘s premise. Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, and Samuel L. Jackson star alongside Rock as Banks’ partner, boss, and father, respectively.
Spiral starts as it means to go on, opening the film with a grisly and graphic murder. Banks’ role in the narrative is established relatively quickly, but more information trickles in throughout, building a world that feels dark and gritty but ultimately realistic. In this sense, Spiral is a well-written film, particularly as its characters all feel somewhat true to its tone.
One of the stranger elements of Spiral is how it attempts to simultaneously emulate and distance itself from Saw. There are numerous callbacks and clear references to the Saw movies, but Spiral‘s characters seem somewhat oblivious to the blatant manipulations of a Jigsawesque serial killer. This makes it unclear as to exactly what Spiral‘s relationship to Saw is, but the fact that it isn’t simply left alone is enough to make it feel more important than it really is.
Ultimately, Spiral‘s Saw connections shouldn’t matter, because when watched objectively, it’s a solid film. It’s well-paced and it builds atmosphere particularly well, which scores it points as both a standalone horror and as an entry into the Saw franchise. In some ways, it innovates Saw‘s ideas, and in others, it shamelessly rehashes them. There’s no rhyme or reason to which it does in any given scene, though.
Though a certain amount of character stupidity should be tolerated (it is a horror movie, after all), Spiral is loaded with so many questionable character choices that a quick application of logic makes its story fall apart in a dozen different ways. Even so, Chris Rock’s surprisingly sound performance buoys the film beyond expectations in some ways. There’s subtle use of his comedic talent, but he largely plays it straight (and decidedly against type in a way that hasn’t been seen since New Jack City), which is commendable.
Spiral is loaded with ridiculous Saw-like set pieces and a fairly predictable twist that mirrors that of the original Saw. It’s a genuine shame, too, because this undermines all of the best aspects of Spiral – it’s passable as a loose sequel, but if it wasn’t so hampered by the Saw movies, it could have been far better. While Spiral didn’t fully reinvent the franchise, it did reinvigorate it with a handful of fresh ideas, and that deserves a little credit. Not too much, but a little.
Summary: Spiral achieves almost exactly what’s expected of it – excessive gore and a lackluster plot twist – but it does so will relative competence nonetheless.
Highlights: Chris Rock’s performance is mesmerizing simply because he’s so out of his wheelhouse – and somehow, he carries it off surprisingly well.