To appreciate Spiral: From the Book of Saw is to savor a narrative strip-down that begins anew with the “simplicity” of James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s original breakout sensation. Returning director Darren Lynn Bousman escalates the Saw franchise’s prominent throughline of law enforcers in danger by utilizing another gruesome game as direct commentary that demands police reform. Jigsaw writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger return as angels of vengeance who orchestrate a spilling of blue blood as another cinematic protest against precincts that abused codes of conduct to enact oppressive justice. It’s undoubtedly a Saw film of the 2020 era where defunding law enforcement is a significant town hall debate, but not necessarily all that foreign to a franchise built on the corpses of detectives, officers, and special agents slain in Jigsaw’s name. It’s hard to call anything here “fresh” beside a piggly-wiggly new marionette, minus struggles with anti-cop rhetoric clashing against headbutting “Copoganda.”
Legend whispers how Chris Rock pitched an idea that became Spiral: From the Book of Saw, which sees the comedian star as “good cop” Det. Zeke Banks. His father Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson) once oversaw the department and a young Zeke as captain, but now is Zeke’s stealthy landlord. Marcus has feared for Zeke’s life ever since his son ratted out a dirty cop—twelve year’s worth of being the force’s pariah—but his dedication to righteousness is why Capt. Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols) watches his six. Why she assigns rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella) as his partner and trainee. Most importantly, why a Jigsaw copycat targeting his bullpen’s dirtiest officers starts sending Zeke body parts that lead to yet another playtime influenced by Jigsaw.
What unfolds is a harder veer into cop procedural territory like a gorier CSI spinoff meets Training Day—down to hazily filtered banter while vet and rook drive crooked streets—as Spiral: From the Book of Saw exists outside a dingy industrial hideaway. Zeke isn’t just another mouse wandering piss-stained labyrinth hallways between certain death and certainter death. There’s a genuine attempt to service character development that previous meatgrinder sequels neglect. Then again, this leaves more time for Zeke to try and generate empathy for cops who can’t maintain personal relationships or show the “good cops” physically assaulting snitches while flipping right back into “only dirty cops though” mode. Yes, the wailing victim whose exposed tibia clinks against a liquor bottle held by Zeke is indeed a meth-dealing sleazebag—but is what’s depicted also the exact abuse of power that furious dialogue rails against when calling out the blatant manipulation of “Article 8” (codes of conduct)?
I fear Spiral: From the Book of Saw suffers from wanting its cake and scarfing it down, in that a socially outraged Saw interpretation tries to distance itself from previous Saw entries. One minute, Zeke and William are jovially conversing about departmental marriage woes like some macho cop self-help group. The next, we’re bludgeoned by the assertion that most cops are morality-corrupt cheats, liars, and criminals. Years of audience devotion to Jigsaw’s web of proteges and blueprints lend little resourceful necessity here, which can be both a breath of relief and disassociated downfall. Stepping away from Hoffman and Nelson and Gordon allows Zeke to investigate yet another flawed derision of Jigsaw’s winnable entrapments that best thrives in its humanity. Then again, “John Kramer didn’t target cops”—says the movie about a franchise where an entire funhouse is dedicated to Officer Rigg’s trial, let alone Eric Matthews’s erasure, so on and so forth.
No doubt, the Saw franchise wrote itself into a corner throughout its fill-in-the-blanks legacy. Anyone attempting to veer from convolution would face adversity no matter the method. Stolberg and Goldfinger accepted an unenviable task, somehow laying the groundwork for genuine moments within Rock’s performance that succeed by portraying the few good officers trying to sterilize infections inside their squads—and yet, other pitfalls negate the very essence of previous Saw excursions that willfully sold their souls to an operatic, albeit soapy, devotion to reveals. Spiral: From the Book of Saw does not contain the “surprises” or gotcha moments we’ve come to expect (possibly adore) from this imperfectly unwieldy franchise. It’s far too mechanical and obvious an installation, detectable even by criminal justice minors before the halfway milestone—but we do get Samuel L. Jackson dropping a “m*#herf^ker” in Saw, so there’s give and take.
Of course, any disciple of Jigsaw is tested based on their trap construction. The symbolism of a courtroom deceiver sacrificing his tongue or trigger-happy detective losing his fingers evokes the repentance teachings of John Kramer. Bousman understands what makes audiences cringe—dating back to Saw II’s needle pit—and that unshakable sensation of skin-crawly dedication to gratifying traps that inflict retributive pain is ever prevalent. Perhaps less disembodiment than expected sans an opening subway impact, but that’s where Bousman understands the viciousness of Jigsaw imitators beyond severed limbs amping the grossness factor. Spiral: From the Book of Saw is despicably evil with the traps it lays—hot wax, instructions to sever spinal cords, tongue clamps—and Bousman captures that essence like Satan’s vinegar piss in a vial. The suffering mixed with chunks of torso flesh or teal jewelry boxes presenting flayed skin delivers the horror and repulsion that’s become Saw’s signature.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw dares to break conventional Saw models, which is its downfall and rebirth. Cinematography by Jordan Oram punctuates a “prettier” saw with artistic flourishes outside warehouse grunginess, and composer Charlie Clouser shies away from “Hello Zep” as an integral callback within orchestral crescendos. On the flip, there are times where Spiral: From the Book of Saw operates like a self-hating Saw return, or worse, is unclear in its convictions. Gore is eternal, poignancy at odds with humorous intentions and clear Copland influences, although the overall elusiveness of previous Saw installments is missing from this relatively cut-and-dry case of Jigsaw’s lament retrofitted onto CSI: Saw Edition designs. If we’re nitpicking, this isn’t even the most cleverly outspoken Saw flick—Saw VI’s healthcare assessment of who rules over life and death is the franchise’s sharpest. As the door shuts on Spiral: From the Book of Saw—a movie sold as a nasty anti-cop refitting—we leave without the whodunit excitement of another unexpected “villain,” hindered by choices that conflate all the badge condemnation and racial unrest the film so vocally tries to deem unacceptable. It’s certainly a Saw package that checks all the boxes, but not one I’d rank as the king, incumbent, or benchmark of Jigsaw’s domain.