‘Spiral: From the Book of Saw’ is the 9th installment in the franchise that began in 2004 from James Wan and Leigh Whannell, and is from the mind of franchise fan Chris Rock, who actively pursued this project, and Saw 2-4 director Darren Lynn Bousman.
The story revolves around Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), a truly good-natured police officer whose morals and honesty puts him at odds with the corrupt within his department. After his undercover assignment is blown, Zeke finds himself in hot-water with his Captain, Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols) and he is assigned a Rookie partner, Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella) after it’s established that the bad blood between him and his colleagues makes it so he doesn’t know who to trust, something in which the details of unfold along with the mystery throughout the movie. Zeke and Schenk are assigned to investigate what appears to have been a homeless person hit by train, but they soon discover that it was one of their own; a detective with his own dirty secrets, but one that Zeke called a friend. Upon learning that Detective Marv Boswick (Dan Petronijevic) was killed by a Jigsaw copycat who is targeting dirty cops, and as he starts to receive gifts from the copycat, Zeke requests to take the lead on the case and must work with those who despise him to solve it.
What really works for me with this film is that it is very much focused on story and character first, and puts the traps/gore second. This may alienate some fans who just want to see people ripped apart by ingenious and clever traps, but for me it was a breath of fresh air for this franchise. Here the characters are actually important to the story rather than just randomly thrown in for the sake of body count, as is the case for many of the sequels following the creative departure from Wan and Whannell. Instead of following the people at the mercy of a Jigsaw killer, we follow the police as they attempt to unravel the mystery, bringing the series back to its ‘Se7en’-inspired roots.
And just to clarify, when I praise the story and the characters, I don’t mean that it’s profound; or groundbreaking; or award worthy. I’m speaking in context of the ‘Saw’ franchise, and I do find it to be refreshing that there is such an emphasis on these things in the ninth film in a franchise primarily infamous for its gory glory. I certainly did not walk into a ’Saw 9’ expecting to spend a portion of my review discussing story and character, and yet here I am, because those things are not too shabby here. Far from perfect, but effective enough.
The character Zeke Banks is the antithesis of previous franchise characters; particularly Donnie Wahlberg’s Eric Matthews and Costas Mandylor’s Mark Hoffman, both of whom were Detectives with shady methods. Instead, Zeke is a lead character whose convictions not only serve the story, but also makes him stand out in a franchise that ultimately highlights the worst of the worst in our society. Chris Rock sells this character perfectly; I know that there are some people out there who can’t get past the comedic side of the actor, therefore can’t take him seriously in a dramatic role, but I’m not one of those people. To me he is one of many talented artists out there who can Transend genre, especially on the comedy side of the spectrum; many comedians and comedy-centric filmmakers have successfully crossed the threshold into more serious terrain. Here, Chris Rock plays a character you can root for who is likeable and yet is at his best when he bites back against those who despise him; his distain equally to theirs, making his interactions with all the supporting characters amusing. Despite the seriousness of his character, he does have a personality, and Chris Rock gives a solid balance between the two sides of the character.
As far as the supporting characters go: Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t get a lot of screen time as former Police Chief Marcus Banks, but his character is very important to the overall story. The rest are decent enough, with Max Minghella and Marisol Nichols as likeable characters, while the remaining cast do well enough as the unlikeable corrupt characters without standing out.
The traps highlighted in this movie are creative and brutal enough, but are not the focal point, and we don’t spend a whole lot of time on them, making this feel the less like a ‘Saw’ movie of all the sequels; I would say that the opening kill is the most memorable as it instantly reminds you what you signed up for by watching a ‘Saw’ movie, but after that, they’re good but just not as good. Still, the gore is solid in this movie, although just not as extreme as what we’re used to from this franchise.
The twist and the final sequence are only my two real negatives of the movie. The twist involving the identity of the copycat was painfully obvious on at least two occasions for me; the first time was a red-flag, the second time was when I recognized some trickery in which its deliberate attempt to misdirect felt more suspicious than honest. The motive of the copycat works just fine and aligns with John Kramer’s philosophies, but the reveal felt flat.
Typically, these movies end with a major twist that is accentuated with composer Charlie Clouser’s grand theme during a “hoy shit” final reveal, but here, while his theme is used for this moment, the moment itself doesn’t fully evoke the feeling that some of the previous films had. Is it because the identity of the copycat is obvious by that point? I don’t know. I understand the motivations, but the reveal of such and the closing moments don’t quite hold the same impact. It didn’t wow me in a way to make me give a shit about what was happening. I hate to say it but even some of the weaker entries ended on stronger notes.
Overall, ‘Spiral: From the Book of Saw’ is the most character and story driven entry, and a worthy addition to the franchise.
8 out of 10
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