A couple years ago, it was announced that Quentin Tarantino had been developing a script for an entry in a major franchise with the added possibility that he may even direct it himself. That franchise was Star Trek, and the concept of Tarantino’s hyper-stylized worldview colliding with the good folks on the Starship Enterprise was so difficult to fathom that most outlets (correctly, it seems) predicted that such a thing would never happen.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw is a similarly unlikely pairing of creative talent and franchise, albeit a decidedly less-esteemed franchise in this case, with Chris Rock starring and executive producing this soft reboot of the Saw series that began in 2004 and spawned seven consecutive sequels between then and 2017.
In fact, Rock was the one who came up with and pitched Spiral’s premise to Lionsgate, and there’s no doubt it’s an inspired one, perhaps more relevant today in the wake of Derek Chauvin’s trial than it was at the time, where the victims placed in Rube-Goldberg torture traps are no longer ordinary citizens paying penance for their sins but corrupt police officers reckoning with their abuses of power. In the right hands, this could wind up being the kind of socially charged horror that makes major waves in its genre a la Jordan Peele’s debut Get Out. Unfortunately, the only takeaway to be had here is that Chris Rock would absolutely kill as the lead in a grim HBO cop drama. Virtually everything else about Spiral is a generic rehash of every Gritty Detective thriller you’ve seen over the last quarter-century since Se7en came out.
The Saw movies began as a cynical update on the deeply puritanical values of 1980s slashers. Where Friday the 13th and its ilk punished teenagers for enjoying weed and casual sex, the Jigsaw killer exposed the dark secrets and moral contradictions of seemingly ordinary citizens, and subsequently serves them a frequently ironic — but always grisly — death. And sure enough, director Darren Lynn Bousman (who also helmed Saw II, III & IV) opens this film with one of the series’ most memorable sequences to date, wherein a crooked cop wakes up hanging over the tracks of a subway via a mechanical trap ensnaring his tongue. Known for lying on the witness stand, the cop’s option is to either cut out the tongue that has sent so many innocents to jail with its lies or be splattered by the incoming train. It’s a morbidly entertaining cold open, one that will likely make fans of the series feel right back at home.
Spiral does try to distinguish itself as a unique entry among the series early on when introducing Detective Zeke Banks (Rock). Undercover amid a crew of career criminals, Banks monologues about the problematic nature of Jenny and Forrest’s relationship in Forrest Gump as they prepare to rob a drug dealer’s apartment. (“How do you know Jenny didn’t give Forrest AIDS? I never saw no Forrest Gump 2.”) The monologue is a hilarious one, clearly written by Rock, but it also fits surprisingly well within this foreboding context. Actually, Rock’s lively personality and sardonic banter is really all that saves Banks from the script’s tired characterization.
After a rather compelling first 10 minutes or so, Spiral sadly begins to do just that. The moment Banks steps into his police quarters, it’s as if he’s stepped off the set of a promising major horror movie and onto the set of a late-period episode of CSI: Miami. It’s as if screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger found a book listing every cop drama cliché ever created and then decided to cram in as many as they could in an hour’s time.
Could you guess that Zeke is going through a divorce right now? And that he’s living in the shadow of his father (Samuel L. Jackson), a legendary cop who worked in the same precinct? Banks’s captain doesn’t have time for his rogue bullshit! Doesn’t he know the city is experiencing rolling blackouts right now because of the heat wave? At least he has a new partner, played by Max Minghella. Look at the partner’s Polaroid of his wife and kids. He loves them so much.
It’s not as if Spiral needed to reinvent the procedural mystery to pass as a serviceable horror movie. It’s simply that director Bousman and his pair of screenwriters clearly have grander ambitions here. When Banks is inevitably tasked with investigating the murders of police officers in his precinct by a Jigsaw-inspired killer, he’s forced to reckon with decades of corruption in which both he and his father may have had a hand.
If that premise alone isn’t provocative enough, viewers are even subjected to footage of police killing unarmed civilians pulled over in their vehicles. That kind of imagery, especially now, is fraught with racial, social and political connotations that could really make for an incendiary work of genre filmmaking. Rock’s involvement alone — with his standup and cultural commentary as prophetic as it often has been — allows for plenty of potential. Alas, all that imagery and star power is merely lip service to give you, well, just another Saw movie. Except this one spends way too much of its 93-minute running time on a painfully dull mystery than the goofy serial killer carnage on which it occasionally makes good.
Really, besides the prestige window dressing, this is nothing more than a middling sequel, only breaking new ground in the most superficial manner. Hell, even the incredibly dated directing choices from the series’ early days are entirely intact here; the Tony-Scott-like sepia tone still saturates every frame, and the rhythm of the film’s death sequences are interrupted by quick cuts and obnoxious speed ramping. For a series in desperate need of a fresh new direction, Spiral takes one step forward before scampering back to safer territory.