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‘Spiral’ Review: Rips too much from the book of 'CSI'

'Spiral's take on the ‘Saw’ franchise tastes a bit stale. But the traps are dope, though.

Chris Rock stares at Jigsaw's symbol in 'Spiral.'
(Image: © Lionsgate)

Our Verdict

Chris Rock’s ‘Saw’ passion project reads much more like an episode of ‘a procedural than a major franchise reboot. It’s messaging is muddy, and its story is convoluted and not in a fun way. The traps steal the green-tinted limelight.

For

  • 🌀The traps are some of the best of the franchise.
  • 🌀So. Much. Blood.
  • 🌀It’s cool to see Rock make his horror fandom into art.

Against

  • 🌀Its messaging is messy and doesn’t sing the anthem it thinks it does.
  • 🌀It tries to differentiate itself from the franchise, but it doesn’t know how.
  • 🌀The finale is a yikes.

The Saw saga continues with Spiral. Our focus this go around is Ezekiel Banks (Chris Rock), who isn’t the most beloved guy around the precinct. He’s the son of their former Chief (Samuel L. Jackson), and has had to watch his back since turning in his dirty partner twelve years prior. He's the type who works alone. That is, until he goes just a bit too rogue and is assigned a partner: a rookie named Shenk (Max Minghella). The pair are barely a day into the job when they’re called to the scene of a brutal death. A man has been torn apart by a subway train, a man who turns out to be their colleague (Dan Petronijevic) and a victim of an apparent Jigsaw copycat. Soon, Banks starts to receive Tiffany & Co. gift boxes full of messages and clues from a pig-masked Jigsaw fanboy.

Driven by the lack of trust he has in his colleagues, Banks sets off chasing the leads spoon-fed to him by Spiral's killer. Red Herrings and compelling clues alike send him back through his own history, chatting with his retired father, his old partner, his wife, and the rest of the police force. The new killer is targeting dirty cops, something Banks knows something about. As bodies pile up, Banks falls faster into the throes of the killer until he is forced to face his own test.

Banks is a clean cop which is intentionally shown as differentiating him between the untrustworthy badge holders in his department. It’s something in the spirit of the Saw franchise, which has Jigsaw often target dirty cops (Banks insists these killings are novel, Eric Matthews of Saw II would like a word), and something in the spirit of “Abolish the Police” messaging. But the messaging is anything but clear. It will be tempting to want to label Spiral with an ACAB anthem, but it’s not. Banks is the new Detective Strahm (of Saw IV, V and VI), the one who gets himself into trouble when he chases down dirty cops like Detective Hoffman (of Saw III, IV, V, VI and 3D). The new Jigsaw is exposing not the state of policing, but the “bad apples” in the mix. The new Jigsaw is judging these cops by their worst actions, cops who are positioned as family men as against the sadistic killer who tortures them. No restraint is exercised in its explanation of the killer’s motives and the finale is a Choice™ that deserves to be winced at.

Director Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed Saw II, Saw III and Saw IV, has managed to bring a fresher appearance to Spiral. Signatures of the original series are its green tint and minimal exterior shots, and this film adds a higher contrast green tint and spends a lot of time outside. It’s a clever way of staying true to the vibe while remixing it enough to feel like a reboot. Though the scares and gore are top tier, the direction doesn’t hit the comedic timing. Minghella and Rock have almost no chemistry and their buddy cop take on Training Day scenes do not hit.

The script is penned by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger who also wrote the last installment, Jigsaw. They’ve certainly tried to play with twists and turns and are mostly successful. There are a few huge misses like using “do you know how hard it was?” to explain away impossibilities, logic gaps you could drive a subway car through, and red herrings with no payoff. It’s Rashomon style flashbacks do some of the story telling heavy lifting, but they’re just not as fun as the twists the film sets up. Presumably, Rock had some fun adding his own flavor, but much of it felt like he was testing his stale “women are from mars” comedy material on Minghella while extending walking scenes to no end.

But the star of Spiral is the traps and boy did they shine bright like bloody diamonds. Each rig is sadistic and mean and reflects the work of fans both in-world and out. They’re ruthless and disgusting and beg you to look away, but fans amongst us will lock eyes on flying shards of glass and stretched appendages. Charlie Clouser, who composed the franchise, is back for more. He brought new tracks that pair well with the hip hop (including original music from 21 Savage) that changes the tone from the originals. The “Hello Zep” needle drop comes just in time and will make OG fans shudder, and new viewers get what the score hype is all about.

Spiral reaches deep into the Saw bag of tricks and pulls out some of the best elements. It is gory and disgusting, filled with a collection of nail-biting and gag-inducing scenes. It plays with the franchise’s desire to take on the corrupt powerful and tries to bring something fresh to it. But it loses itself in its core messaging and ends up a soft rehashing of Jigsaw’s initial bit. The whole affair feels like an episode of a procedural, tinted green with nods to Training Day and Reservoir Dogs.  It’s nothing but a Jigsaw copycat.