'Spiral: From The Book of Saw': An Intricately Bad Soap-Copera Spin-Off About Police Accountability [Review]

Somewhere between 2004’s “Saw” and 2017’s “Jigsaw,” the torture in the “Saw” franchise became a punchline. Their mechanics stopped working—the elaborate devices by Jigsaw and his disciples were no longer believable acts of crafty Boogey-people but screenwriters desperately inventing new ways to die. At the same time, all of the personal drama in between became wildly convoluted with each hop in the timeline. Enter sort-of spin-off “Spiral: From the Book of Saw,” a clumsy attempt at experimenting with the formula of what makes a “Saw” movie, including cops pursuing a mysterious killer, laborious devices of torture, and pig masks. In a Jigsaw-like twist, “Spiral” is now the joke because it tries to be a non-“Saw” fan’s “Saw” movie and hacks away at what makes the franchise at the very least gruesomely amusing. 

READ MORE: Summer 2021 Preview: Over 50 Movies To Watch

The movie doesn’t contain any top five moments for the series, but it does have the best-developed cop character, even in the series’ long history of stone-faced dudes with badges. That’s in huge part to Chris Rock’s lead performance as Detective Zeke Banks, who from the beginning gives “Spiral” its biggest edge by being laugh-out-loud funny within the gritty little world created by returning director Darren Lynn Bousman (“Saw II,” “Saw III,” “Saw IV”). Rock is allowed to be funny for the first act or so, delivering monologues about “Forrest Gump” and divorce that sound like Chris Rock stand-up, but also develop his character: a lonely, disgruntled, hardworking, smart cop. There’s a lot of tropes in the mix here, and at least Rock claims them early on, creating promise that this could be a “Saw” movie with a sense of humor to go with its “Seven”-like visual palette. 

READ MORE: The 25 Most Anticipated Horror Movies Of 2021

Another one of those tropes is that he doesn’t want a partner, and is forced to have one when a rookie named William Schenk comes aboard (Max Minghella). Zeke is initially grossed out about William’s idealism about life, marriage, and the job, but that tension is side-tracked when the investigation heats up, and a tongue is found in a small box, next to a cop’s bloodied badge. More cops then start to disappear as more boxes pop up, with messages from the killer intact. Yes, someone like Tobin Bell’s master torturer Jigsaw is kidnapping and torturing cops, though these cops all have their own history of corruption. That history includes Zeke’s former police chief father, played by Samuel L. Jackson. It’s a special thrill to see Jackson in the mix opposite Rock, and to hear him say the line “You want to play games, motherf**ker?” Sadly, Jackson is wasted by the movie, and the Jackson/Rock on-screen father/son dynamic is a cheesy mess, especially when Rock appears like a boy with a Sharpie goatee and backward cap in some of the film’s flashbacks. 

READ MORE: The 100 Most Anticipated Films Of 2021

The main plot of Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger’s script seems like an inspired revitalization of Jigsaw’s gospel, until the pacing slacks when its streamlined mystery should be taking off, and until one considers POV. Essentially, it’s about crooked cops being killed in gruesome ways, often with flashbacks that mention how they’ve abused their power, sending innocent people to jail or straight-up killing citizens and lying about it. The cops’ screams of pain here ring a lot like justice, and yet “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” still relies on the question of who is behind these killings to be an unsettling energy. Maybe it will be for people who shudder at police reform, or believe that every rotten apple is precious, but as I assume the citizens of their terrorized city would feel, I had to remind myself that this is, right, “bad.” “Spiral” simply uses the hot-button idea of police accountability as fashion, and it would be far more interesting if the movie took a wider look at what the film’s public thought about it, or what it means to root for a Jigsaw copycat. But the ambition of “Spiral” never extends to any meaningful or even provocative dialogue about justice against police brutality. 

READ MORE: The 50 Best Horror Movies Of The 21st Century So Far

This conflict of loyalty eats away at Zeke, who knows that cops are dirty—he snitched on his partner 12 years ago—and complains about having to watch his back all of the time. Rock grapples with all of this in a performance that can be supportive to the actor’s goals of playing various shades of weariness and toughness, the latter often when he stalks through the precinct with heavy shoulders, ready for a fight. But finite moments of emotion are far less successful as the killer’s actions get progressively personal, like when Bousman abruptly cuts to Zeke screaming, or looking shell shocked after seeing a co-worker’s corpse, pushing for emotions that then go over-the-top. Rock’s performance is left rough around the edges, without either the control or complete abandon to make it as resonant as it could be. 

All of this takes place in the same universe as the earlier “Saw” movies, though many of the branding is different. Jigsaw AKA John Kramer is reduced to a headshot cameo a la Jason Bourne in “The Bourne Legacy”; Billy the Puppet has been replaced with a pig marionette; and the voice of the figure who appears on the pre-torture tapes now sounds a whole lot like Nathan Fielder. But perhaps the strangest decision is to omit the saga of Lieutenant Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who was behind many of the traps in the later “Saw” timeline. When Zeke says “John Kramer didn’t target cops,” it’s true, but shows how “Spiral” tries to leave behind its past history of a corrupt cop who co-opted Jigsaw’s teachings for his own punishment-focused traps. Not mentioning Hoffman, who killed many of his own fellow cops, is awkward even by “Spiral” standards. 

Without an effective boogeyman, the creepy factor of “Spiral” is deathly low. The torture doesn’t help matters. As much as skin still gets filleted and plenty of appendages are forcefully removed, the gratuitousness feels mild, and backfires. Chalk that up to the work of a copycat, but a “Saw” sequence is not a success when you watch a character scream their guts out only to think, “That’s it?” Still, this is when Bousman tries to return to the visual branding, like the flashy, fast-forward edits when showing someone strapped up to a machine that’ll either give them death or a gnarly makeover. These little touches try to remind viewers to sit back and relax but make one nostalgic for the self-aware chaos of nearly any of the previous “Saw” stories. 

And then there’s the ending. Nearly all of the intellectual goodwill from earlier collapses, for the sake of a ham-fisted metaphor and a shameless twist that any “Saw” fan will figure out early into the game. To top it all off, there’s a goofy 21 Savage track that samples Charlie Clouser’s unmistakable “Hello Zepp” motif from the “Saw” movies, and it has to be one of the tackiest rap songs to play over a horror movie’s end credits since LL Cool J told us his hat was like a shark’s fin in “Deep Blue Sea.” 

There turns out to be no actual book in “Spiral: From the Book of Saw,” but it does define what makes an intricately bad movie, with flaws that can sometimes be earnest, unintentionally hilarious, or disappointing. Watching “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” I was thinking about the franchise’s fans, whose taste for soap-copera and over-the-top torture has been gravely underestimated. They’ll want to throw the book at Rock and Bousman. [C-]