If there is one nice thing I can say about the threateningly-titled Spiral: From the Book of Saw - and I do think it is just the one thing - it's that this represents a much braver attempt to haul the old Saw franchise back into the public eye than the last one. 2017's Jigsaw was a little bit skittish, doing absolutely nothing to tweak or freshen up the formula of the seven films that were once mainstays of the October movie calendar from 2004 to 2010, other than moving the action from the decaying industrial warehouses of a dying city to a rotting old barn in a desiccated farmland. Spiral switches back to the warehouses, but otherwise it's a genuine attempt to do something with the franchise material that's at least a few degrees different, both as a story and as a catalogue of grotesque gore effects. Director Darren Lynn Bousman, making his fourth movie in the series and his first since 2007's Saw IV, has been fairly vocal in suggesting that we shouldn't even think of this as a Saw movie at all, but a different thing taking place in the shadow of that franchise. And that's just silly - it nudges the formula but it doesn't stray that far from what the franchise has included before.

Sadly, despite my tepid admiration for Bousman and writers Josh Stolberg & Pete Goldfinger, in their attempt to do something new with Saw, goes pretty much as far as "well, it's nice they tried". Frankly, Jigsaw is the better film, even if it's more conservative: it may just be running the formula, but it runs it successfully. Spiral is one bad decision after another, the worst being that in attempting to avoid making a normal Saw movie, the filmmakers abandoned the franchise's handful of strengths while diving headfirst into its flaws. Say whatever one will about these movies, if one wants to watch horribly excessive deaths, conceived with garish cruelty and executed with a splendid quantity of stage blood and latex body parts being mutilated, they deliver in spades. The death scenes in Spiral certainly earn an R-rating, but other than one that punctuates the opening scene (easily the film's highlight), they just don't have the squishy grandiosity of their forebears. They're short, relatively clean, thoroughly unmemorable, and as a result they feel a bit like an appendix, a vestige of some earlier form that at present serves no purpose other than to get in the way.

The story this time takes place a good decade or more after the main trunk of the franchise, with the Jigsaw Killer long dead, and the residents of Saw City freed from the scourge of moralistic death traps providing ironic karmic comeuppance to people who have been very naughty. Or are they? In that aforementioned opening scene, a certain Detective Marv Boswick (Daniel Petronijevic) is attacked by a figure in a pig mask in the city's sewers, and finds himself suspended by his tongue in a metal harness on a rickety chair, right in the middle of subway tracks. And a recording has been left for him: jump off the chair, and rip out his tongue - the tongue that he has used to give false testimony in criminal trials - or get splatted by a subway train in about 90 seconds. Longtime series fans will be unsurprised to learn that he manages to suffer both of those fates at once.

Cut to Detective Zeke Banks, the proverbial One Good Cop who we learn in the form of some amazingly blunt dialogue early on has gotten everybody in the Saw City PD mad at him for electing not to look the other way at the widespread police corruption. Zeke is played by Chris Rock, the primary instigator of the film's development; apparently, Rock is a Saw fan, and he happened to meet a top-level Lionsgate executive at a wedding who was interested in his pitch to star in a relaunch of the franchise. So we would not have this film without Rock, in theory, which makes it too bad that it suffers from his presence. He's not really much of an actor, is the thing, and when he's good in movies it's because his comic skills are well-suited to the tenor of the piece. Spiral barely even cracks a smile, and stripped of any significant opportunities to show of his comedic chops, Rock just ends up feeling like one of the vaguely recognisable D-listers who tend to populate this franchise, taking up space but not really doing much else. Only there's nothing "vaguely" recognisable about him, and it rather badly destabilises the movie to have such a nothing performance attached to such a famous face, far worse than if it was just a random nobody. Astonshingly, this is a problem Spiral suffers from twice over: as Zeke's retired cop dad Marcus, a living legend whose relationship with his son was fractured over the whole dirty cops thing, the film has cast Samuel L. Jackson, who hasn't been this disengaged from a role in I don't know how long. Maybe never. Maybe this is literally the worst Samuel L. Jackson performance ever; or at least the most lifeless and perfunctory, and isn't that just as bad?

Back to Zeke: he was friends with Boswick, and so takes a particularly urgent interest in the highly unexpected emergence of a Jigsaw copycat. As he tries to find anything resembling a lead, peevishly dragging around a new rookie partner, William Schenk (Max Minghella), corrupt cops keep getting kidnapped and put in Jigsaw-style traps, ironically punishing them for their abuse of authority. This is, by Saw standards, impressively close to cogent social commentary. Eventually, of course, Zeke winds up ensnared in a trap of his own and many horrible twists are revealed, or at least two are, and the film ends on a note of fatalistic despair that ties things off enough that the extremely likely absence of a Spiral 2 will be no real loss to anybody.

Refashioning a Saw picture as a police procedural and murder mystery isn't a half-bad idea; unfortunately, the filmmakers completely muck things up. Thankfully, Spiral does away with all the convoluted back-and-forth, six-overlapping-time-frames balderdash that made the latter Saw sequels so hard to watch without a flowchart handy; it tells a story that moves in one direction, and does not have any scenes that are magically revealed to have been set five weeks ago or any such nonsense. It does have flashbacks, and these are consistently mishandled, shoved crudely into the film and generally not sufficiently revelatory to justify how badly they hurt whatever momentum is able to accrue around Zeke's investigation. But at least the film always tells us that they're flashbacks.

Mostly, the story is just a grind, a wholly routine cop picture that stops, too rarely, to show us a short burst of insufficiently gaudy torture. Bousman directs this all crisply but without much aesthetic flair; presumably to distance this from the Saw films proper, he and director of photography Jordan Oram have backed away from the corroded color palette that have dominated this series, instead shooting most of the film to just look, like, normal. In the final third, the toxic yellows start to crawl in, right around the time that the action pivots away from "murder mystery" and into "Saw picture",  which is also the point where the series' main musical theme, "Hello Zepp", puts in its most notable cameo. And that cameo, at least, is awfully well-positioned and possibly the single best aesthetic choice made anywhere in the production of the film.

Other than that, there's really just not that much personality here. "A cop thriller in the Saw universe" ends up feeling, at best, like an extraordinarily tired Se7en rehash, and it's not often at its best. Generally, it's just one long scene after another of Rock tunneling his way through generic "cynical detective" scenes and dialogue, something he isn't terribly well-suited for, and can't make interesting. I have in the past found several of the Saw movies to be terribly obnoxious, even offensive; Spiral is the first one that I have found out-and-out dull, and to be honest, that's probably worse.

Reviews in this series
Saw (Wan, 2004)
Saw II (Bousman, 2005)
Saw III (Bousman, 2006)
Saw IV (Bousman, 2007)
Saw V (Hackl, 2008)
Saw VI (Greutert, 2009)
Saw 3D (Greutert, 2010)
Jigsaw (Spierig Brothers, 2017)
Spiral: From the Book of Saw (Bousman, 2021)