The SAW movie franchise was the horror hit of the ‘noughties. From 2004 to 2010, seven movies were released. This was an annual gift to fans who loyally visited the cinema to follow the punishing machinations of John Kramer, the serial killer known as Jigsaw. In 2013, the eighth film, JIGSAW was released. Now, in 2021, we have been delivered the ninth instalment, SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW.
Movie geeks and SAW fans are aware that comedian Chris Rock’s name has been linked with the latest Saw film since 2017. There are stories that Rock kicked open the CEO’s door at Lionsgate Films saying he was a SAW superfan and then delivered an impassioned pitch to restart the franchise. Even though this is B.S., Rock absolutely did have a meeting with Michael Burns, Vice Chairman of Lionsgate (he ran into him at wedding) and discussed the possibility of doing a SAW sequel with some comic elements. His early involvement has led to his being the star and an executive producer of SPIRAL.
The idea of revamping the SAW franchise has been simmering for some time. The first eight movies made over $1 billion dollars putting it in the top 10 of horror movie franchises. In an era when studios are more than happy to remake the Intellectual Property they already own, a new Saw was always coming back. In fact, The Pandemic kept this off our screens longer than originally planned. All Lionsgate needed was a new take on the story, since fans had indicated a certain tiredness with the seventh and eighth iterations.
Sadly, that’s not what is on offer here. The mere presence of Chris Rock does give this a different feel from the outset. The franchise has never had so many overt one-liners spraying out like blood from an arterial wound. This is diverting at first, but doesn’t build into anything. It isn’t even all that amusing over the course of this shortish feature.
Rock plays Detective Zeke Banks, a disgraced cop whose fellow officers regard him as a rat for an earlier incident where he sent one of their number to prison for a murderous response during a routine job. His humiliation is made worse by the fact that his ultimate boss at the time, was his father Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson), the legendary Chief of Police in the unnamed city where they reside. The junior Banks doesn’t get on with his father, nor his co-workers. He is a man alone, convinced that truth is more important than human connections. Is this the reason that he is targeted to be the receiver of a series of clues from a serial killer who appears to be a Jigsaw copycat?
Banks is teamed with a new partner Detective Schenk (Max Minghella) and they are immediately challenged by the complexity and lack of motive of new murders that involve police victims in Jigsaw-style punishment-traps. Everyone thinks that original serial killer is dead, so who is responsible for these crimes, and why are they targeting these officers of the law?
From the first moments of SPIRAL we are thrown right into the world we recognise from the other SAWs. Sort of. But as the minutes tick by, we become aware that we are in a police procedural style drama that stars Chris Rock. It reminds us a little of the movie SEVEN (1995) or THE BONE COLLECTOR (1999), but the lead investigator is played by one of America’s top stand-up comedians. This needn’t be a problem. Plenty of comedians have acting chops. But Rock isn’t known particularly for his. His own movie TOP 5 (2014) and Season 4 of FARGO (2020) received his best performance notices where he created characters that don’t rely solely on comedy and have some sense of a reality to them. Unfortunately, his Banks isn’t a rounded portrayal. His go-to expression is a half-bemused, half-angry squint. And the script isn’t particularly layered, either. There is cliché after cliché as Banks defies his current boss and goes out there to solve the case his way. Because we recognise this formula, we get into the rhythm of a cop drama, only to have it surprisingly punctuated by the next trap and the next victim. Oh yeah, we say to ourselves, this is a SAW film. There’s gore, stretchy, tearing, latex-limbs, slice-y Rube Goldberg-esque killing machines, but for the most part this is a SAW-ish movie set inside a standard maverick cop story.
The performances of Minghella and particularly Jackson, actually take attention away from Chris Rock. Minghella plays good-cop and feels somewhat like a believable character after only a scene or two. Jackson is 72 years old, but whenever he turned up, I wanted him to take over and bring this thing home. He is an actor who can rivet our attention in moments. Director Darren Lynn Bousman, wisely keeps Jackson’s scenes to a minimum, probably for this very reason.
When I tell you the end-result isn’t particularly scary, you need to have some context. I am not a major horror fan. I have seen the iconic stuff, but it’s not my first love. Go with this metaphor: I am not the guy who regularly knocks back the Naga Viper Chilli and then nudges you and says this Vindaloo isn’t even hot, bro’. I found a couple of the scenes a bit cringe-inducing, but full-on horror fans are unlikely to have their nerves jangled by what is on offer.
SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW fails to deliver a new take on the SAW saga. It is the first film that doesn’t have Tobin Bell as Jigsaw and takes a deliberate step away from that complex storyline. That seems like a smart idea, but the replacement material isn’t exciting enough to warrant a further trip into this movie universe. Maybe next time they’ll entice Aussie originators James Wan and Leigh Whannel back for yet another crack.
Duration: 1 hour and 35 minutes. Rating: 5.5/10