Despite dealing with interesting topics and being more character-focused, Spiral does not give enough justification as to why the Saw franchise should be revived.
In 2004, two young filmmakers named James Wan and Leigh Whannell made a small film called Saw. With a small budget, but an interesting premise, the film made a killing at the box office. This then launched a franchise that would spawn countless sequels and even two video games. It also helped popularize the torture porn genre that would dominate horror cinema for half a decade. Since then, much has changed in the realm of horror. The Saw franchise eventually ended in 2010, having released six sequels. Jigsaw (2017), meanwhile, attempted to bring back the franchise to its glory days to mixed results.
James Wan and Leigh Whannell also moved on to even greater success. Wan directed The Conjuring (2013), Furious 7 (2015), and Aquaman (2018), while Whannell helmed Upgrade (2018) and The Invisible Man (2020). Surprisingly then, the franchise would be tried to be revived again by actor/comedian Chris Rock, who pitched his own idea of a Saw film, which eventually blossomed into this year’s Spiral.
Spiral is about the story of Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) who discovers the mangled remains of a police officer. His death is reminiscent of the Jigsaw killer, the man who put his victims in dangerous traps in order to teach them a life lesson. With the help of his rookie partner (Max Minghella), the two are in a race against time to unravel the identity of this copycat as the killer begins to target more police officers.
To start things off, it wouldn’t be a Saw movie without its trademark traps and Spiral does well in that category. Saw veteran director Darren Lynn Bousman returns to provide audiences traps aimed to make them squeal and wince at the horror these victims endure. The traps are inventive while never veering off to the realm of ridiculousness that the sequels eventually spiraled to. The effects here are well made with the use of practical effects for the gore which adds realism to these set pieces Meanwhile, the actors in these traps are convincing enough for the audience to buy that they are inside these brutal devices.
Focus on the protagonist
Another of the film’s strengths is focusing on the protagonist. It makes the film more character-focused rather than just carnage on screen. Chris Rock gives a good performance as Zeke Banks, a detective who is seen as a pariah in their police force for giving up a dirty cop. Rock succeeds in giving his character a jaded outlook on life and his frustrations dealing with a police force that actively hates him. His relationship with his father (Samuel L. Jackson) is also one of the film’s interesting aspects as Banks deals with the struggle of living up to his father who was a celebrated police officer.
At the same time, Max Minghella provides a good partner dynamic with Rock, with his wide-eyed idealism as a rookie detective contrasting Rock’s world-weariness. Because of the three actors and their respective performances, Spiral makes sure that despite the carnage and gore happening in the film, it never forgets to make the audiences care about the characters that push the story forward.
Spiral also manages to give timely political commentary that is even more relevant now in 2021 despite being made in 2019. A big issue dealt with in the film is police immorality as the Jigsaw copycat targets cops who have had a history of corruption as well as police brutality. While other Saw films had brushed with social commentary before, most notable Saw VI (2009) and its criticism of the health care system in America, Spiral puts its issues in the forefront. It deals with dirty cops as well as the police force’s “honor code,” which is what causes Banks to butt heads with his other colleagues and become a reviled figure. And while some of the subject matter is sadly executed without any subtlety, Spiral makes it one of the film’s focus rather than just as subtext.
Weak Script and Generic Characters
Despite these strengths, however, the main problem with Spiral is its weak script that is unable to bring out the best of its premise. While the film succeeds with its protagonists, its supporting cast suffers from little to no characterization. Banks’ police chief (Marisol Nichols) is just your typical angry police chief seen in so many cop movies who shouts at the top of their lungs as they chide our protagonists to inform the audience whatever character flaw they might have.
The other characters, meanwhile, are never developed enough for the audience to care once they are put in these terrifying traps. The relationship between Banks and his father, while interesting, also isn’t given enough time to develop with Rock and Jackson only sharing a few scenes together. Despite the mystery of why their relationship has become estranged, the film doesn’t delve deep enough to show the deterioration of their personal relationship.
In terms of narrative, another problem with the script is the film’s twist. The Saw movies are known for their twists which often wrap up each film with some earth-shattering revelation while composer Charlie Clouser’s Hello Zepp plays in the background. But the problem with Spiral is that it is a twist you can see coming from miles away. The identity of the killer is foreshadowed too much and the film never makes any attempt to veer off the audience’s suspicions through some red herring or clever misdirection. Because of this, once the identity is revealed, you’ll just be left with a look of indifference rather than shock.
Just Another Saw Sequel
Finally, the problem with Spiral is that while it poses interesting topics in the film with an emphasis on character, the film doesn’t give enough proof as to why the Saw franchise should be revived in the first place. The story is heavy-handed and while character-focused, the detective story is one that you have seen in much better films. Its social commentary is timely but at the same time, it’s too unsubtle to be deep and meaningful often coming across as heavy-handed and preachy.
While the traps are violent and inventive, it doesn’t have the impact of the reverse bear trap nor the simple bathroom setup from the original film. What you are left with then, is a film that is adequate enough to watch with a bunch of friends, but not enough to resurrect this old franchise. Saw was a game-changer, Spiral is just another Saw sequel albeit one of the better ones.
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