Movie Review - Spiral: From the Book of Saw
Updated: Feb 25
I have my brother to blame for my distaste for the Saw franchise.
He’d been an aficionado of horror films for as long as I can remember while it took me a while to warm up to the genre. Okay, it was more like I needed the combination of my childhood overactive imagination calming down a bit and having enough bottled rage with real life that I needed to see people getting dismembered lest I became the one doing the dismembering…wait, stop, this isn’t therapy…this could actually be used in a court of law.
Ahem…where was I?
Right, my brother. Upon the release of Saw he, like at least a few others, thought it was the greatest thing since cinematic sliced bread…and I was soon peppered with “Did you see it yet? Aw, man, you need to see it, it’s awesome!” This went on for a bit until finally I walked down to my local Blockbuster (yes, back in the waning days) and rented a copy.
The experience is what you’d expect if you ever found yourself in this situation where someone totally overhypes something: I entered the end credits with an overwhelming sense of ‘meh’. Sure, it was serviceable, the gore effects were totally fine but I just didn’t see the sheer awesomeness that my brother did. So, I was content to say “Okay, been there, done that, don’t need to revisit”.
In spite of that, there were a number of films and each time a film would come out it would be very much like running into someone you knew back in high school, you tip your hat, recognize that the other person isn’t dead yet then continue your existence…preferably in the direction they’re not heading in so that you can avoid any awkwardly nostalgic conversation.
But no matter how much you’re beyond them, well, there’s always the ‘Reunion’, isn’t there?
When word came out that there’d be another Saw movie coming, again ‘meh’. But then I heard Chris Rock would be attached.
Now you have my attention.
I’m always a fan of when actors take on a project that’s outside of the film genres they’re usually classified with. So, when you have a comedian headline a horror movie (and it’s not a horror-comedy), you’re definitely on my radar and such was the case with Spiral: From the Book of Saw.
All of the hallmarks you’d expect with a Saw movie are here, a killer with a knack for moral posturing, gruesome torture devices, each one meting out gory punishments and a police procedural effectively leading you from kill to kill. Before we get into any of that though, let’s hammer out a synopsis:
Police detective Ezekiel Banks finds himself in an unenviable position: a good cop working in a precinct full of corruption, all the while in the shadow of his police chief father. When a Jigsaw copycat arises, slowly picking off dirty cops one by one, it’s up to Zeke and his rookie partner to follow the clues, knowing that there will be no back-up from his fellow boys in blue.
The thing that struck me most while watching this film…and nudging me to give this series another look…is that there’s a very ‘poor-man’s-Se7en’ feel to it. This film has that dirt and grittiness to it giving some eeriness to what is essentially a police procedural. Obviously, what separates this from your weekly dose of Law & Order is the gore and the film is certainly no slouch here. Each deathtrap is believable as are the aftereffects and there’s definitely some squirm factor. I think the only slight I would cast over the procedural aspects is that if you’re paying attention throughout the film, the revelation of the killer’s identity isn’t much of a surprise. The clues are all there, scattered throughout the movie…and while I didn’t catch all of them, it really only took one or two to figure it out. I’m not so sure that’s a slight on the part of the filmmakers though, as you want to make sure the film can hit the widest audience as possible, and, let’s face it, a mystery isn’t what the butts are in seats for…we’re here for the blood and guts.
So what about Chris? He did good. I found his character likable and, most importantly, while being funny, he didn’t try to turn this into a comedy. Diving into the disc’s special features, it was relief to hear that this was his intention and why he was involved in the first place. While I’m not sure there’s more to Zeke’s story after this, I’ll admit, I’d sure be interested if there was…and if not, I’d love to see Rock take on these kinds of roles some more, he was great. On that note, being supported by Samuel L. Jackson playing his father certainly elevated the proceedings and each of their interactions, even the more serious ones, were the high points of the film. The remainder of the cast fleshed out the scenario nicely, with the more corrupt members of the precinct being suitably sleazy in their own way…each of them doing that thing that great character actors do: making you not like them without having to say much at all. Also, it’s worth noting that having the stereotypical shouting, disgruntled police captain role gender-swapped to a woman was a pretty fun take and Marisol Nichols did a great job with it.
Sadly, there is a bit of a negative that we have to talk about that, while I won’t say it ruined the movie for me, it certainly did lessen the movie’s impact: taking it from something good that I could recommend to something that flirts with ‘meh’ territory. And it’s something that could’ve been easily tackled in the writing of the film…tacking on, what, a few minutes of running time, at best. You see, the killer has ties to one of Zeke’s first cases, the one that resulted in him turning in a dirty cop and pretty much set him on his ‘lone wolf’ path. While we’re told that the entire department had taken this dirty turn because of some ‘Article 8’ that all of the victims had some part in, we’re never told what ‘Article 8’ is, what it entails, what exactly was the policy was/is? I mean, it had to be pretty bad for a bunch of people to be murdered for it, right? Well…tell us what the fuck it is man! Look, let me put this in comic book terms. If you had no idea about Jack Kirby’s DC work, and I tell you that yeah man, the Anti-Life Equation is a nasty piece of business, you’re just gonna shrug and say ‘meh, okay’ and move on with your life. But if I tell you that the Anti-Life Equation is at the heart of a conflict between a race of demi-gods and is powerful enough to turn the likes of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman into mindless slaves for the darkest powers in the universe, now there’s impact, there’s stakes, there’s cause for alarm. Now you say, ‘Woah, shit, let’s hope that doesn’t happen!’. So for as terrible as ‘Article 8’ is, the fact we’re not told what it was, well, the writers just pretty much ripped out the heart of the story and removed any depth from the killer’s motivation. Now, it’s simply a case of ‘dude started killing people because of a law he didn’t like’. Guess it’s time for me to mount up and start killing people because I hate Seattle’s all-encompassing 25 MPH speed limit then…
Given my experience with Saw, and the unusual Chris Rock casting, I really did want to wrap up this review enthusiastically endorsing the film…shouting from the mountaintops that ‘hell yeah man, that was cool!’ And I just can’t do that. His performance as well as the ever-reliable Sam Jackson are definitely worth checking out…and all the Saw staples are here, but there is just a slight twinge of hollowness here that moves me from saying ‘yeah, definitely check it out’ to saying ‘it’s okay, but…’ All in all, I’d say it’s worth a rental or, if you see it cheap on disc in a few months and you’re a Saw fan, then sure, grab it.
TLDR: Great performances form Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson can't make up for some plot holes in this one. Still worth a look, so long as you don't have to pay too much for it...and that gets the film our Plain Cat rating.