If there was a moment to resuscitate the Saw franchise, it surely came and went a while ago. Unapologetically gruesome and increasingly stupid, each of the last eight films has grown steadily worse, flatlining with 2017’s dead horse-flogging Jigsaw. Even co-creator Leigh Whannell left after Saw III. So it’s with a certain amount of weariness that we welcome this latest entry, Spiral: From The Book Of Saw, onto screens.
Billed as a reboot, rather than a continuation, Spiral sees Chris Rock play a wisecracking, disillusioned detective. As unlikeable protagonists go, Zeke Banks is up there with Jordan Belfort of The Wolf Of Wall Street and Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg. He’s reckless and often very rude. His colleagues hate him, his ex-wife hates him and, by the end-credits, you’ll probably hate him too. But before that, we get a chance to watch him run around the city, chasing a new copycat killer who worships original baddie Jigsaw from grisly murder scene to grisly murder scene. Eventually, it all climaxes in a tense standoff that sets up another sequel.
And yet, Spiral isn’t a complete waste of blood. Director and franchise veteran Darren Lynn Bousman (who helmed Saw‘s II, III and IV) holds a unique position in that fans are now so jaded it’s impossible to disappoint them – and the new film benefits from those reduced expectations. There’s fun to be had in watching Rock snipe at Samuel L. Jackson (who plays his retired police chief dad) – while a flashback involving some questionable stick-on facial hair is genuinely (if unintentionally) hilarious. Taken on face value: as a silly, pantomimic body-horror about a crazy person speaking in a funny voice through a puppet – Spiral can give you a gory good time.
The problem is, Bousman’s film has loftier ambitions. Reframing the same tried-and-tested format – regular joe must reconcile past decisions in life-or-death ‘game’ – as a detective thriller doesn’t work. A bloated script attempts to woo fans with as many inventive death traps as possible, while having Banks follow up clues simultaneously – which means two narratives end up fighting each other. Consequently, the action zips around at (literally) breakneck speed, failing to build up any tension. There’s also a very blunt message about police corruption, but even that gets drowned out by the sound of freshly severed limbs slopping onto the floor.
Spiral is best when one part of itself – grim horror or police procedural – dominates. Early moments featuring Banks skipping across crime scenes, throwing out sarky one-liners play to Rock’s strengths. Similarly, the twist-filled finale feels like a classic Saw showdown – even if the murderer’s unmasking is a little predictable. In a weird way, Lionsgate’s bid to revamp the series with new ideas has confused things further. Although bringing another rehash to the torture table wasn’t viable either. Just like in one of Jigsaw’s depraved games, there really is no way out.
- Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
- Starring: Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan David Jones
- Release date: May 17 (in cinemas)