For better or worse, 2004's Saw set off a now nine-film franchise of nasty games of death. While the first film had a small, scrappy feel to it, each sequel has pushed the limits of violence and gore that can be depicted on screen and still get an R-rating. It has been 4 years since 2017's Jigsaw and now Spiral arrives with hopes to revive the franchise. Spiral offers some new ideas but too often falls back on the formula of the series.
The film stars Chris Rock as Zeke Banks, a detective who has been shunned by his coworkers after turning in a crooked cop. He is given a new partner, rookie detective William (Max Minghella), who he doesn't want but proves to be an ally after they respond to a grizzly murder of a fellow officer. Early on, Zeke recognizes that this may be connected to John Kramer and the Jigsaw murders. The officer is killed in typical Saw fashion that involves a game in which the victim must sacrifice some part of them or die.
One of the things that separates Spiral early on from other Saw films is Rock's presence. He injects a fair amount of humor early on, something that is in short supply in the series. A joke about pilates is easily the best joke of the entire series. Rock clearly has a lot of respect for the series too and his humor doesn't detract from the serious tone. The relationship between Zeke and William makes for memorable characters that we begin to care about. This is another way in which Spiral improves on the series. The film turns the focus away from the stomach-churning kill traps to actual characters. The traps here aren't quite as memorable as some previous ones but this is a welcomed trade nine films in. Add in Samuel L. Jackson as Zeke's father, a former police chief, and you have a compelling start to the film.
However, as Spiral goes on it reverts back to the series formula of traps and plot reveals that anyone can see coming. Shocking reveals are part of the appeal of the Saw franchise. Its plot has gotten increasingly complex as a result. However, there has always been a common theme of renegade justice running throughout the films and that is no different here. For all the freshness of the performances, the plot eventually feels like a retread.
This is easily the best Saw film in a long while. The first hour of the film shows how getting personalities in lead roles leads to a fresh and entertaining sequel. Spiral ultimately cannot escape its own legacy and the third act feels uninspired. The film hints at trying to blow up the Saw formula but then backs away from it.