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ROCK IN ALL OVER THE SWIRLED
Spiral: From the Book of Saw (18)
Review: David Stephens
Bear with us for a brief moment whilst we celebrate … woo-hoo! *fist-bump*, etc. The fact of the matter is that we "saw" (heh!) this on the big screen. Not a screener, and certainly not for a ludicrous fee for "premiere streaming". Nope. We watched this in an actual cinema, with other people present no less! That might not seem impressive to non-Brits, but it's a bloody milestone for our multiplexes and box office takings! Anyway… on with the show.
"Jigsaw", eh? Not that good, was it? Even to die-hard fans of the "Saw" franchise. Rather than a reinvigorated reboot of the concept, it felt like a softer rehash of earlier storylines, with more time-out-of joint shenanigans and yet another Jigsaw disciple. And don't even get us started on the frickin' laser beams! Despite that and less-than-kind reviews, it went on to take over $102m globally from a $10m budget. Another film was all but assured, but instead of the Spierig Brothers coming back, no one predicted that Chris Rock would take the lead, Samuel L. Jackson would join him, and veteran franchise director Darren Lynn Bousman would return. But it happened, and after over a year's pandemic delay, it's playing in the US and UK.
After a fairly gnarly opening torture trap in the subway, we meet Det. Ezekiel "Zeke" Banks (Rock). Embittered but still cracking wise, after turning in a crooked cop and having his colleagues "thank" him for it (cue dead rat on the desk), he is assigned homicide duty with rookie partner William Schenk (Max Minghella). When he realises that the (pieces of the) body in the subway are that of a cop buddy, he takes charge under the watchful eye of legendary retired Dad Cop Marcus Banks (Jackson). Then it all turns into a torture-shit-show as it appears (another) Jigsaw copycat is on the loose and targeting corrupt coppers…
Unlike most of the "Saw" films, we're seeing things from the cop's perspective and not the victim's confused bloody escape attempts (apart from short sharp shocks). When you realise that and watch Rock start monologues about "Forrest Gump" (how it's a shitty movie and wouldn't get made today… which is a fair point TBH), and reference "The Wire" and "New Jack City", you know this isn't the average intense "Saw" experience. It has to be said that this tonal change does jar at moments during the film's running time, especially when "Gangsta" music replaces Charlie Clouser's iconic theme. There are so many sarcastic quips from Rock, hateful looks from precinct personnel, and alpha-male outbursts that it often feels like a gritty "Lethal Weapon" film rather than a horror flick. Especially with more F-bombs than "Goodfellas", Jackson Mo-Fo'ing all over the shop, and a mismatched pair of police partners.
That being said, the blood is definitely back, and there's no lack of gore here. After the lacklustre "barn maze" set-up from "Jigsaw", at least we have some decent traps. These also reflect themes about their victim's transgressions which feels like it has been missing from some of the more recent instalments. Rock also brings some surprising emotional heft to the lead role, especially in the latter stages, and there's a great shot of him walking dead-eyed and pissed-off down a corridor. The plot is also as twist-turny-doesn't-quite-make-sense as you would expect, although it loses marks for a midway occurrence that makes it somewhat easier to guess the identity of the killer.
At the end of the running time, at least we get Clouser's trademark soundtrack crescendo, along with all the usual rewind of the clues and a reasonably clever payoff with the final trap. But is it worth watching, and is it actually "Saw 9" in all but title? In all honesty, it doesn't feel like a simple franchise entry or direct sequel. We won't spoil, but it feels like a branching-off as opposed to a continuation. How you react to that will determine how you ultimately feel about "Spiral" and your viewing of it. It's certainly caused some very mixed reviews to be posted so far.
As its stands, this is a decent enough gory cop thriller with entertaining turns from Messrs Rock and Jackson and an interesting attempt at pushing the concept slightly away from its convoluted origins and twisted storyline. As such, if you watch it as a standalone horror thriller, it's solid enough, and it is certainly more enjoyable and accomplished than "Jigsaw" was. But is it enough to either kickstart a new story arc or re-energise interest in John Kramer's blood-splattered legacy? Maybe not, but that remains to be seen over the next few weeks. Not bad, but perhaps not really what people were expecting or hoping for.
It's undoubtedly not vintage "Saw". The cop procedural element takes precedence, the killer is easily guessable, and tones are often jarring. It feels like a "Saw" rip-off, but it is admittedly a decent one for the most part. Otherwise, Rock is good, the gore is back, and the traps are imaginative. But the jury is still out as to whether this will spiral outwards or not.
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