Cinema Dispatch: Spiral

Spiral and all the images you see in this review are owned by Lionsgate Films

Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

I’ll admit that I broke down and went to the movie twice this year to see movies at a theater; Nobody a few months back and Mortal Kombat a few weeks ago.  This however is what I will consider the genuine start of me returning to theaters to see movies; not just because I’m finally vaccinated but because studios are starting to trickle out the movies that they had been holding onto for a year now starting with this reboot of sorts for the Saw franchise.  Now I thought Jigsaw was a perfectly well executed movie that sadly did same tired thing we saw in the previous films.  This movie on the other hand looks like it will be going in a different direction which is what I was hoping for from the last movie, but can Lionsgate deliver on that promise and reinvigorate the franchise with a bold new vision, or will we be begging for Tobin Bell to be written back into this franchise by any means necessary by the time this movie is through?  As much as I’d like to see Tobin Bell’s head in a jar I’m hoping this doesn’t turn out THAT badly, but let’s find out!!

We begin our story many years after the death of the Jigsaw Killer John Kramer and follow detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), a cop who doesn’t trust other cops; especially after he ratted on one of his officers for straight up shooting a witness in the face and has had to look over his shoulder ever since.  Because of this he likes to work alone, but after a recent undercover job goes sideways (one that he neglected to tell anyone he was doing), he’s assigned a rookie named William Schenk (Max Minghella) to try and keep him in line and reign in his behavior.  He would have been out on his butt if his father (Samuel L Jackson) wasn’t the former police chief that everyone still respects, but that’s where the good luck ends as his best friend on the force is murdered in some convoluted death trap and his body parts along with taunting clues are sent to him at the police station; all mimicking John Kramer’s MO down to the red spiral symbol.  It’s a race against time as everyone is working to find out who the new Jigsaw Killer is, but with so many enemies on the force can Zeke trust any of them to have his back?  On top of that, why is this new killer targeting Zeke, and what secrets will he uncover about his own past along the way?  I wonder how much nonsensical lore they had to read while going through the old Jigsaw case files.  Was anyone in the world of the Saw movies able to ACTUALLY figure out what the heck was going on?

“Wait, so he was dead by 2006?”     “Yeah, and he had two disciples, but one of them died in 2006 as well.”     “I thought he had three.”     One was a SECRET disciple.”     “So who killed all those people after 2006!?”     “Well there were those two as well as the traps Kramer set before he died, and then there was that one guy who cut his leg off in 2004. ”     “So HE was part of all this too!?”     “Maybe?”

Perhaps it’s been too long since I’ve seen a good crime thriller as the ONLY one we got through most of the Pandemic was The Little Things on HBO Max, but despite this movies flaws I found it to be quite enjoyable and easily one of the better entries in the Saw canon!  It’s still not as good as Saw II which for me is still the benchmark, but the change in focus and the ways they move COMPLETELY AWAY from all the nonsense of the other Saw movies while still being intrinsically part of that legacy made this refreshing in a way that even the more competently directed Jigsaw couldn’t be!  They finally did what I was asking them to do four years ago and that is to use the previous films as a starting point to tell NEW stories instead of trying to resurrect whatever magic made it a successful franchise for seven films, and while there are a LOT of clunky moments and wildly disparate parts, I’ll give it all the credit for at least trying to move forward instead of constantly looking back.

Look!  They even got a different puppet this time!

To understand what this movie gets right, we need to figure out what Saw was, what it became, and where it went wrong.  The first Saw is an INCREDIBLY tame movie compared to everything else that came afterwards with maybe three traps and one of them is just chaining dudes up in a room.  Where the movie succeeded was in its tension and world building; creating a new villain that combined the best of slasher movie excess and serial killer intrigue.  The sequels certainly took things in a BIGGER direction, but why things started to fall off after the third one (which even then was slipping pretty hard) is just how convoluted things had gotten.  Gone was the tension and gut wrenching character moments instead replaced with gore and spectacle; almost none of which connected because the characters were poorly written and the villain had gotten so diluted with post-mortem plans and a series of far less interesting disciples.  This takes EVERYTHING back to square one and focuses even more on the serial killer aspect of it by following a police officer investigating the crimes and leaving the gore to small yet effective moments throughout the movie instead of bombarding you with it every five minutes.  Now sure almost all of the Saw movies DID have a cop investigation subplot in there somewhere, but here it becomes the focus of the narrative instead of just something we cut to whenever they need to set up a new trap. 

“You ever see the movie Training Day, rookie?”     “Yeah?”     “Okay, well we WERE gonna do that this week but then we started getting eyeballs in the mail, so just watch it again and you’ll take an exam later.”

However, as much as I genuinely like the focus on the investigators over the traps, PERHAPS the balance is still not quite there as the traps feel pretty perfunctory when they do show up, and there are scenes they could have easily cut from the cop investigation as they just end up going nowhere; not in a Red Herring or misdirection sort of way, but just in a way that feels like we’re trying to stretch the run time by giving Chris Rock more things to say.  Speaking of whom, Chris Rock is not an INCOMPETENT actor (he’s still WAY better than Costas Mandylor) but that doesn’t mean he’s great in this movie either.  The big problem is that his personality and shtick sucks so much oxygen out of the movie as the film stops dead in its to let him just do his Chris Rock routines instead of letting him embody this character; old routines too as the first thing we hear from him as a rant about FOREST GUMP of all things.  Come on dude, HOW OLD IS THAT MOVIE?  Does he realize that half the people watching this weren’t even BORN when that movie came out?  His extra level of prominence on this movie (on top of being the main character) is probably due to his producer’s credit on the film and while there are plenty of times in this movie where he DOES try and sink into the role and just play the character written on the page, it’s ultimately just an overbearing performance and him being himself for so much of this is never not a distraction.  Samuel L Jackson as his father is similarly placed as more or less playing himself, but what works in his favor is that he’s not on screen nearly as much and that he’s simply a better actor than Chris Rock.

“You think what I do is EASY!?  Just because I MAKE it look easy doesn’t mean you can pull it off!”

Of course, the best Saw movies are ultimately reflections of its main villain rather than the gore itself, and that’s perhaps the best thing about this movie.  I won’t spoil who the villain is (though it’s one of the more obvious villain reveals in the series), but they work so much better than any of the other “official” disciples of John Kramer ever did.  Frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if John Kramer actually HATED this new person because they are straight up a copycat; someone who takes Kramer’s methods and techniques but does it for his own ends instead of Kramer’s.  You can argue how “sincere” Kramer was in trying to reform those who survive his traps, but it was the key to everything he did; the tortured justification for the horrors he inflicted on the world.  All of his disciples ultimately failed him in this regard (even the newest one from Jigsaw), but they at least seemed at one point or another sincere in trying to follow his code.  This new person?  I’m actually unsure myself if they believe in anything that John Kramer was doing or if they’re just stealing his methods as one giant misdirect, but the fact that you can’t peg this new person on one side or the other is brilliant!  I LOVE the idea that Saw doesn’t have to always circle back to Kramer in increasingly absurd manners and this new person’s twist on the theme feels relevant in a way that none of the other movies did; not even in the sixth one which was the big Healthcare Movie that I just found overly obnoxious and grotesque.  I’ll be honest though, I just do not get the ending, or at least what the villain’s motivation is at the VERY end.  I’m trying to wrap my head around what the final trap was supposed to test, what the GOOD option for the hero was supposed to be, and what the villain WANTED to happen.  I THINK the villain got what he wanted, but did the hero do the right thing in his eyes, and even if the hero DID, was it the right thing for themselves to have done or did it reveal a flaw in their character?  The trap itself is good and there’s absolutely BRILLIANT conclusion with its final twist of fate that makes it one of the strongest traps in the entire franchise, but I left the movie feeling a bit more confused than I should have. 

“I want to play a game… OR DO I!?”

The inescapable problem with this movie is a lack of cohesion as the parts they’ve brought to the table just don’t fit together as well as they should.  Still, almost all of the parts are far more interesting than anything else we’ve gotten from the Saw franchise and I’d gladly take this awkward first step to something new than almost any other movie in the canon.  Whether it’s better than Jigsaw is gonna be up to what you’re looking for in the series.  This movie doesn’t have the gore or elaborate set pieces, nor does it have the ludicrous twist at the end as the mystery is pretty easy to figure out.  Still, my vote is for this one despite its very obvious flaws, and if you’re in the mood for a procedural mystery I’d certainly recommend checking it out if it’s safe for you to do so.  We’ve got a pretty packed summer ahead of us so perhaps this one will ultimately get lost in the shuffle, but for now it’s a fun little bit of gory fun and hopefully it will lead to an even BETTER movie once they iron out the kinks and make sure everything is in its proper place.  I’m sure Kramer himself had a few misfires the first time he tried making one of those head ripping traps, but did he let THAT get him down?  Of course not!  He persisted until he got it right, and that’s all that really matters!

3 out of 5

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