Legend has it that Chris Rock — of all people — stormed into the Lionsgate offices a little more than two years ago and pitched a twisted, visionary take on how to reimagine the “Saw” franchise in such “chilling detail” that studio head Joe Drake was too shaken to say no. The actual story behind what happened is a bit less dramatic: Rock sat next to a Lionsgate exec at a wedding in Brazil and casually floated the idea of starring in the tired series’ next installment, a chance encounter that paved the way to a pretty typical brainstorming session back in LA some time later.
But the fact remains that the Jigsaw killer’s puzzling legacy had run out of meaningful pieces by the time Rock got involved… just as it already had by the time Lionsgate first tried to exhume it with the empty-headed “Jigsaw” in 2017, and just as it already had by the time “Saw 3D” brought the saga full circle in 2010. That movie was billed as “the final chapter,” which is the Hollywood equivalent of a sports team announcing the start of an arduous rebuild; in this case, the studio responsible for one of the highest-grossing franchises in horror cinema history was effectively conceding that “Saw” would have to start over and sharpen its teeth if it had any hope of outliving the last of Jigsaw’s sadistic disciples.
And that’s exactly what “Spiral” does. Or at least makes an honest attempt at doing. Less of a soft reboot than an emergency root canal for a series at risk of being removed from the release slate forever, this dogeared new chapter “from the Book of Saw” might lack the discipline to escape from the same traps that have always shackled its franchise to the grindhouse floor, but it still manages to squeeze a few drops of fresh milk out of Lionsgate’s oldest surviving cash cow with a back to basics approach and some unexpected political bite.
So what was Rock’s big idea? What scared Joe Drake into letting a major star come out of left field and pump new life into a franchise that appeared to be lying dead on the floor of the Lionsgate studio bathroom? To a certain extent, we may never really know the details; while Rock was rewarded with an executive producer title for his proactive role in making this movie happen, the screenplay is solely credited to Peter Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg. But the most critical difference between “Spiral” and the seven other “Saw” sequels that it’s trying to spin away from is hard to miss, regardless of who brought it to the table: “Saw” is woke now.
It’s not an uninteresting direction for a story about a sociopathic moral crusader to go. The franchise has flirted with addressing systemic inequities in the past, specifically in regards to America’s broken healthcare system. But “Spiral” — in its own dopey way — is informed by questions of social justice at its very core, and in a way that suits the series’ vaguely biblical “foot-for-an-eye” moral code.
In the previous movies, the killer tried to reform flawed people by testing their attachment to certain body parts. In this one, the killer tries to reform a flawed institution by testing someone’s attachment to certain people. Where Jigsaw asked someone to cut off their foot in order to save the rest of their body, Spiral effectively asks someone to keep their foot and cut off everything else. Let’s not beat around the bush any longer: The “flawed institution” at hand is obviously the cops, and the person whose loyalty is being tested is a detective who’s seen enough police brutality over the years that he doesn’t even flinch when he finds one of his colleagues splattered over a subway train with their tongue dangling from a rusty vise above the tracks.
Rock plays Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks, a detective who’s been driven to undercover work because everyone on the force already thinks of him as a rat. We first meet Zeke as he’s standing amid some oblivious thieves and performing a tight five about how “Forrest Gump made a billion dollars selling shrimp, and Jenny still won’t fuck him!” The point couldn’t be any clearer: This may be a “Saw” movie starring Chris Rock, but it’s also a Chris Rock movie set in the “Saw” universe. That proves to be a difficult balance for anyone to maintain in a film that has far more dismemberments than punchlines, and Rock’s sardonic demeanor often feels like it’s pushing against the pallid joylessness of the franchise’s “Nine Inch Nails” aesthetic. Where Zeke comes alive is through his roiling frustration with his colleagues, which Rock churns into something raw and unstable when his character becomes the lead investigator into the Jigsaw copycat who’s only killing dirty cops.
No great loss, right? Zeke would probably agree. But that might not shake out too well for his father (Samuel L. Jackson, endowing the “Saw” franchise with the kind of swagger and legitimacy it’s never had), a retired police chief who everyone still reveres like a god. There’s also the fact that Zeke prides himself on being a good detective even if all of the other people in his department think the law shouldn’t apply to them; he turned one fellow officer in to internal affairs, and not a single cop in whatever jaundiced city “Spiral” takes place seems to have forgiven him for it. The only possible exception happens to be his rookie partner. Played by an overachieving Max Minghella, who lends the movie its sweet spot while also raising the human stakes, William is a young family man who idolizes Zeke for his integrity. Surely that will end well for everyone involved.
For all of its changes of pace, “Spiral” unfolds in a pattern that will be mighty familiar to “Saw” fans: Every few scenes someone is lured into a creepy location by themselves and jump-scared by someone wearing a pig’s head that Spiral’s victims would definitely be able to smell in advance. These poor souls wake up in a torture device so complex it makes Rube Goldberg seem lazy, and find themselves presented with a gruesome compromise that they typically agree to make at the last second before getting obliterated anyway because the killers in these movies are really just trying find a moral justification for their bitter personal revenge.
Having previously directed “Saw II,” “III,” and “IV,” Darren Lynn Bousman knows his way around an overcomplicated murder trap (the highlights here involve hot wax and human marionettes), though gorefiends might be disappointed to find that Spiral’s twisted games take a backseat to the story’s murder-mystery bent. Of course, it’s hard to imagine anyone is still hungry for more of the same when Bousman is all too eager to feed them the same old slop, and “Spiral” is never more compellingly different from what’s come before than during the quiet moments when Zeke considers the virtue of the crime spree he’s trying to stop. Is Spiral messing with the cops, or is Spiral messing with him?
“Spiral” saves the best answer to that question for its signature twist in its dying moments, but the film’s interest in any of the script’s weightier themes only stretches so far before its skin begins to bleed at the seams. This is still a “Saw” movie at heart, and while the “torture porn” label might be unfairly reductive to a movie that has more on its mind, the idea of watching “Spiral” for its insights on social justice isn’t far off from the idea of watching a Bang Bus video for its insights on responsible gas consumption. But if the basic feel of the franchise hasn’t changed — it’s still ugly and cheap and thoroughly uninterested in getting branded as “elevated horror” — the idea to extrapolate Jigsaw’s schtick toward societal problems is a smart one. If nothing else, “Spiral” is the first “Saw” movie in a very long time that might leave people open to the idea of seeing another one.
Lionsgate will release “Spiral” in theaters on Friday, May 14.
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