Spiral movie review: Chris Rock's Saw reboot proves final nail in the coffin for tortuous franchise

·5 min read

The cult of the Jigsaw Killer has a new member. The original, a certain John Kramer, died some six Saw movies ago. Continuing his legacy are disciple after disciple, whose death traps have gotten more medieval and moralising. Among all of cinema's most fiendish serial killers, Jigsaw was always the most self-righteous SOB.

His fresh-faced copycat is no less. He's got the prerequisite taste for creative torture. The targets this time appear to be almost exclusively cops. Trying to figure out why before he kills the next is the standoffish and stand-up-ish Detective Ezekiel "Zeke" Banks (Chris Rock), who is reluctantly partnered with rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella) on the investigation by Captain Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols). Meanwhile, Zeke's "motherfucking" dad Marcus (Samuel L Jackson), also a former cop, chases a lead of his own.

Zeke (Chris Rock) and William (Max Minghella) in Spiral
Zeke (Chris Rock) and William (Max Minghella) in Spiral

Zeke (Chris Rock) and William (Max Minghella) in Spiral

Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV) takes another stab at reviving the Saw franchise with Spiral. And to do that, he enlists the help of a comedian still trying to establish his dramatic bona fides. While Rock's angry schtick is well-suited to this reckoning on police violence, he still can't nail a convincing cross-over. He talks like he is honing his routines for an upcoming stand-up special. Bits on Forrest Gump and Pilates do sand the edges off the brutal opening slaughter though.

Zeke's a regular "Serpico." Exposing his former partner for killing a witness has made him a pariah in the precinct. Frequent flashbacks of this witness-killing episode retcon the backstory to why the new Jigsaw is targeting cops. With each new victim, it becomes more and more clear the killer's motive is linked to this episode. It's personal for him.

Zeke and William at a crime scene
Zeke and William at a crime scene

Zeke and William at a crime scene

Saw newbies don't have to be clued up on the whole mythology to watch Spiral. Here are the nuts and bolts of the "book of Saw": Tobin Bell's original Jigsaw, John Kramer, was a terminal cancer patient who forced unsuspecting victims into playing his sick "games," designed like theme park attractions. The theme here being gruesome death, and the bloody cost of redemption to avoid it. A creepy puppet laid out the rules of play in an accompanying TV videotape.

Think of Jigsaw as a life coach who hosts a self-discovery retreat to hit the reset or refresh button on your life. In a twisted way of course. Because he was a narcissist with a preachy agenda. His targets were usually those who didn't treasure their lives, and the death traps offered these people he deemed to be "ungrateful" a second chance to redeem themselves €" at a cost. In CIA-speak, it could even be called enhanced self-interrogation. Those who came out of it alive came out transformed, with a renewed appreciation for their lives, but only their own. The few, feeling especially thankful, decided to help John on his self-righteous crusade after his death. These narcissists judged others based on John's prescribed moral code because they're desperately trying to keep alive the fiction of their teacher's principles.

The high-tech sadism has always been the actual star of the Saw movies. In their staging and execution lie the franchise's ingenuity. That's really the central draw: whatever new method of head impaling, limb pulverising and blood splattering the filmmakers could come up with. If John wanted to rehabilitate individuals, the new Jigsaw wants to rehabilitate the whole system. To do so, he wants to weed out all the corrupt cops with his atonement apparatus.

Don't mistake the new Jigsaw for a killer with a conscience though. Much like his predecessors, he isn't someone who cares if the punishment fits the severity of the crime. A cop who habitually lied on the witness stand gets his tongue torn out from his mouth. Another whose finger pulled the trigger on an unarmed man has his own fingers pulled apart. The one who covered it all up gets covered in boiling wax. Bousman stretches these moments to lengthen the agony, daring the viewer to look on without averting their eyes. If your gag reflexes haven't got any exercise in a while, they sure will now.

For a franchise which delights in the joy of violence, the Saw movies sure love their parables. Tuning into issues surrounding law enforcement the world over, Spiral directs its punishment on dirty and trigger-happy cops. The new Jigsaw not only wants to hold accountable those who abuse the civil rights of the very people they are supposed to protect, he wants to dish out retributive justice in return tenfold.

Spiral plays on real-life anxieties even while luxuriating in casual misanthropy. To bestow any political credence to such a movie is plain silly. This is not exactly a work of satire, nor a piercing examination of police culture. The film has virtually nothing to say about the systemic racism which pervades its setting, instead simply wallowing in its torture as theme park attractions.

Though Zeke rallies against corruption, he is no saint either. At one point, he hurts an already wounded drug dealer further to obtain information. In addition, Spiral fails to consider the intersection of race and policing i.e the dilemma of being black and blue. A characteristically cruel irony presents itself when an innocent Black man is rigged to raise his gun in a Jigsaw trap, tricking the cops into killing him. What kind of emotional response Bousman is expecting here is unclear. Horror? sure. Mobilising anger for social justice? Not really. Spiral's attempt to rejig a creatively insolvent series proves to be as futile as its killer's attempts to reform the criminal justice system.

Rating: 1.5

Spiral: From the Book of Saw is streaming on Lionsgate Play. Watch the trailer here €"

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