Concerning the release of 2017’s Jigsaw, it was apparent that the Saw franchise that birthed eight movies before it was running out of steam. Almost every longstanding horror franchise runs into this issue. At least, in terms of John Kramer’s (Tobin Bell) methodical revenge story that covered a lot of territories. Both before and after his death. It’s hard to keep something going when you lose your principal antagonist or if the story well has dried up, per se. The Halloween franchise has found a way to walk onto newer ground while honoring its history. Time will tell what happens with a new Paranormal Activity film. While the spirit of Kramer is alive and felt in Spiral, it’s a film that inspires to be its own entity. Even with a little social commentary peppered into a ready-made vehicle to house it in. Chris Rock pitched the story treatment to the Vice Chairman of Lionsgate and the result is something that will feel familiar; from a horror and social commentary standpoint.
Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock) is a short-tempered, heart-in-the-right place police officer with a chip on his shoulder. Twelve years prior, he turned in a fellow police officer for murder. While doing the right thing, the other cops in his precinct took this as him ignoring ‘the code.’ Thus, on a bust, he gets shot as they ignore his pleas for backup. Years of looking over his shoulder have caused him to become increasingly ornery and hostile while his personal relationships are in tatters. His father, former police chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson), serves someone as a specter of something he’s trying to both connect and live up to.
Capt. Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols) endures the ebb and flow of his emotions and gives him a new partner. A fresh-faced rooked named William Schenk (Max Minghella) has a wife and a newborn. Immediately, the bleakness of Zeke and the optimism of William clash. Zeke declares with resounding morbidity that when you become a cop, “you’re going to die alone.” Only to make matters worse, there’s a new killer forging their wrath upon the city. One that’s undoubtedly inspired by Kramer’s methods of heavy-handed moral justice. This time, targeting police for various indiscretions under their watch, armed with spiral insignia as a calling card. Previous Saw films have tackled perceived villains in the health care industry, convicts, con-artists, and even crooked cops. Spiral’s concern hones in one singular aspect. While other Saw films may have brought an ensemble of people together, this film is very self-contained regarding the outside world.
Director Darren Lynn Bousman (who also directed SAW II-IV) tries to balance an emotional story with the need to serve previous masters of gore and brutality’s past. The traps in Spiral are inventive. Those who might wonder if there are any tricks up the franchise’s sleeve with its trademark hallmarks of fortune will be pleasantly surprised. While not as many as previous iterations, those that do occur will leave a lasting impression. Bousman allows scenes to linger on bits of flesh; either charred, cut, or shredded. Maybe they will even incur a few winches and look-aways from your seat.
Rock’s trademark humor comes into play at points. Either when he’s discussing Forrest Gump plot points or joking with William about his wife possibly cheating on him one day. Also, the film allows him to explore the stress and mental strain of what’s occurring. As the bodies pile up, there are scenes that occur with Zeke’s psyche on its last legs. He not only has prior trauma that’s contributing to his paranoia, but something new agonizing him. An adversary without a face. Samuel L. Jackson brings his trademark veteran swagger and sarcasm whenever he appears. Although they are not on screen together a lot, Rock and Jackson actively invoke Zeke and Marcus’s relationship for you to know. It’s a son who wants to be important in his father’s eyes and a parent that still revels in legend.
Spiral has a bit more to say, even though it doesn’t deviate much from the blueprint of SAW’s past. Bousman provides story bytes that get recounted when the twist happens. A lot of flashbacks serve as an expository tool to further implicate how important the past is. It can take away the impact from the present-day story that takes up most of the film. The film ultimately knows what Saw fans want. They come for the imaginative ways people meet their end and to find out who is pulling the strings (there are a couple of Easter eggs for the Saw faithful).
Here, there’s a little more substance that is put on the dinner plate. Spiral walks a line in displaying substantive themes with the torture that’s expected. It doesn’t fully enwrap itself in either. When it sways into something that can be completely different, it’s almost like it feels the gravitational pull of its predecessors. But it IS trying to do something new other than resurrecting it’s iconic dead punisher. Spiral doesn’t accept that it’s just another Saw movie.
Photo Credit: Lionsgate