Spiral: From The Book of Saw (2021)

MAY 12, 2021


I'm just gonna get it out of the way first since it's the main question people have had since day one: NO, you do not need to have seen or even have any real awareness of the previous movies to follow/enjoy Spiral: From The Book of Saw. If you've seen the trailer you've also seen the entirety of the film's connections to the previous storyline, i.e. they mention it as a possibility ("A Jigsaw copycat?") for the new threat the (all new) characters are facing, and that's about it. Unlike Jigsaw, which tried to appeal to newcomers and die-hard fans and ultimately pleased few on either side, this one quickly moves on from the tenuous connection and does its own thing, often to its own benefit - though it's occasionally hampered by being "Saw 9" to some extent.

Let's start with what works, since there's more of that. As you probably know, the movie was delayed for a year due to covid, but it feels weirdly timely due to its plot about holding corrupt cops accountable for their crimes. The new killer is targeting dirty cops, and keeping in line with his would-be predecessor, the traps he puts them in have some connection to their actions; in the first one, a cop who lies on the stand to ensure convictions is forced to rip out his own tongue in order to escape with his life, and another who shot an innocent person has his trigger finger (and the other nine) ripped off. Given the protests and "defund the police" type movements that have occurred in the past year (i.e. long after the film was shot), the movie oddly feels "of the moment" and yet simultaneously restrained. With Chris Rock as the hero (a cop himself, but presented as the only non-corrupt one on the force) there will certainly be a sizable Black audience who will cheer for these asshole cops getting their just deserts, but may also wonder why the movie didn't dig deeper unless they too are aware of the film's long delay.

(So let's make it a huge hit, ensuring a Spiral 2 that CAN take the last year into consideration!)

But even in that regard, it's the rare film in the series in which just about every death is one you can feel is justified. With Jigsaw and his accomplices often going after drug addicts and the like (not to mention complete innocents, like Bobby's wife in Saw 3D), it's nice to never have that "OK, did they really deserve this?" kind of moment and just focus on the mystery and Rock's attempts to put it all together without being able to trust any of his fellow officers. His backstory (which, surprise, has a connection to the killings!) is that he "ratted" on a cop who shot an innocent person, which began a chain of events that ultimately left him hated by all the other cops and his Chief of Police father (Sam Jackson, and yes he says his most famous profanity*) losing his job. How and why this all has to do with the present day killings is of course what the movie reveals in due time, so I won't get into that, only to say that it's an interesting way to keep the series' love of flashbacks intact without having to worry about causing any plot holes or inconsistencies with previous entries.

As for Rock (who also came up with the story! He's a legit fan of the franchise!), he is certainly a more believable cop than he was in Lethal Weapon 4 all those years ago, and luckily for him the man has aged well, looking much younger than his actual age of 54 at the time of production. They use this to slightly ridiculous effect at one point, setting a flashback ten years prior (so he'd be 44) by giving him a backwards baseball cap like he was a "kid", but one can assume his character is only supposed to be around 40 (he almost has to be playing younger, since Jackson is only 17 years older than him in reality). And he brings a new idea to the series: humor! Not dark humor, which has crept in from time to time, but actual, Chris Rock-ian humor, sprinkled lightly from time to time just to offer a bit of levity in the early going (for those who may be scoffing, I'll ease your mind by letting you know it's all confined to the first half hour). There's one line to Jackson (concerning a mall) that had me full on cackling, and once I adjusted to it in the early scenes (Rock's first appearance, where he's working undercover as a thief, comes off as a standup monologue) I have to say it worked well.

And again, we're talking about what is technically "Part 1" of a series, so there's no reason to complain "jokes don't belong here" or whatever. Sure, it would be very distracting to have this stuff in Saw VI, but that's not what this is, and it helps establish early on that this is indeed a new thing. I'd liken it to Phase 1 Marvel stuff, where we understood it was all the same world but allowed a. different tones and b. an acceptance of the minimal crossover material. By now, sure, it's weird that Sam and Bucky are the only ones who are tackling a giant terrorist threat in New York (where the hell is Spider-Man, at the very least?), but back then, before they all knew each other, no one thought much of their lack of interconnectedness. Same deal here; not only is it a decade later, but it's an all new set of characters (and a new season! The others always felt "cold" in their minimal outdoor scenes but this takes place during a heat wave) and so the tonal shift is never an issue.

Also, for I think the first time in the series, the real world is specifically established, with references to Forrest Gump and New Jack City (from Rock's own character; didn't he think it was weird he looked just like Pookie?). Characters even discuss things like UberEats and sleep training, which is a foreign concept to the series as these people have never displayed much in the way of normal human activities we can all identify with. It's still unclear where "Metro City" is, though, so they haven't gone completely off the reservoir, but in a weird way it helps us forget about the possibility of Hoffman or Amanda popping up or something, allowing this "new" world to really come to life on its own terms without the weight of eight other films on its shoulders. So much that I can even forgive "Jigsaw didn't target cops", - because he certainly did! - but to suggest otherwise would require them to get too far into mythology, so I will allow this bit of inconsistency for the sake of a cleaner story now.

However, there is one thing that misses the mark revolving the reveal of the movie's villain; I won't outright spoil their identity, but you might want to skip the next TWO paragraphs if you want a cleaner experience.

For those who are still here, even though it's not a traditional sequel, it is still sticking to the basic formula of a Saw movie, and in that respect it doesn't really have any twists, which wouldn't even be a big deal if not for the fact that it's painfully easy to spot who the culprit is. Without being hampered by the established timeline, I was really hoping I could get that giddy "OH S**T!" kind of feeling when I realized what was happening, if I ever figured it out at all before it was spelled out, but I never even got close to that sort of thing here. In fact it was so obvious to me who the killer was that I started expecting/hoping that it was a misdirect, and I even chuckled to myself at one point, because that kind of "you think you see the twist but you don't" move was pulled off quite well in... er, Spiral, the 2007 thriller (where you might start thinking a character is actually all in someone's head because she never talks to anyone else in the movie, only for the twist to be that nope, she was real, and now she is dead). Y'all stole the name but not their clever idea?

(STILL SPOILER-Y!) A friend of mine noted after that maybe after Saw IV's twist, which people had a hard time really following - and may have resulted in the series' declining box office fortunes - the producers may be weary about anything too clever. Saw V didn't even really HAVE a twist, and while Saw VI did, it was a pretty insular one (the bit about William's "family"). The Final Chapter/3D's big twist was Cary Elwes/Gordon's return, but that was spoiled in publicity and the film itself by having him appear in earlier scenes of no consequence, which should have told any viewer that he was going to be revealed as a sidekick (because otherwise why would he come back at all?), and Jigsaw's "half of it was a flashback" concept was also pretty easy to suss out. And while all that is justifiable in some way or other, it seems to me that with an all new story/characters they could at least come up with something as good as "Jigsaw was on the floor the whole time" in the original. But alas, when the guy who I thought was the killer 15 minutes into the movie was revealed to be the killer, I just kind of sighed that it was indeed as simple as I suspected. To be clear, I didn't mind the character being the villain, and his motive is on point (ain't no one gonna feel he's in the wrong, honestly), but felt the way the mystery itself was structured was a bit too obvious. A little subterfuge would have been welcome, basically.

But otherwise, I found myself engaged with the concept and the gradual filling in of the backstory, which we get in pieces along the way and also allows Sam Jackson to sport a mustache in the older scenes to make him look younger. Sam's not in the movie as much as you might hope (I guessed a while back that it was probably four scenes; I was only one off), but it's rare to see him in this sort of thing and he aquits himself nicely. As for the traps, they're not as overly elaborate as you may have come to expect, but they're in line with the simpler ones of the original, and don't rely on too much self mutilation (no "pound of flesh" types); one only required a hard bite down on something to escape death, which, while painful, at least would allow the victim to quickly get it over with, unlike digging out their own eye to get a key or whatever. Charlie Clouser's score is a fine mix of old and new (though using "Hello Zepp" should be illegal without a better twist!) and while I missed his (practical!) transitions, Darren Bousman reigns in some of his flashier sensibilities to match the "back to basics" tone and story. It's even in widescreen to help distinguish it from his three previous films, along with a new color pallette and more exterior scenes than the norm - it's one of his best films as a director, not just within this franchise. It's even kind of scary in a few moments; the old films didn't really have time for scares after a while with so much plot to handle, but here there's a couple of legit jumps.

Long story short, it's hard and even a bit unfair to compare to the Saw films in general - I can certainly say it's the best since Saw VI (though I know that isn't exactly a high bar to clear), but it also feels like comparing a singer's solo album to his band's entire discography. So let's not focus on that, and instead consider how successful it is in terms of trying to restart the series in a way that newcomers can enjoy - and to my eyes, it's a winner. Let's put it this way: if it was its own thing entirely, sans its quick references to John Kramer, my review would basically be "It's a solid thriller slightly hampered by a mystery that's too easy to solve and some surface similarities to those old Saw movies." And for what it's worth, there have certainly been a number of whodunit slashers where I could guess the killer ahead of time and it didn't take away my enjoyment, so it's really only the Saw branding here that made me feel a little let down by that element. So basically, the less you know and care about this franchise, the more likely you are to enjoy Spiral, but fans of the series should, at the very least, feel satisfied with what they have come up with as a way to revive it in a way that doesn't mess with what came before. With varying degrees, we all win!

What say you?

*The movie also has one direct Pulp Fiction easter egg (can't really miss it, but keep an eye on the door to the cold case room) and one other possible one that ultimately has Jackson saying "Ezekiel". Not sure if someone is just kissing Sam's ass or they wanted to pay tribute to chronologically challenged films of yore, but it struck me as a little weird.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this movie

    I'm a hardcore fan of the series and it's always nice to get another entry


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