All Cops Are Bad? 'Spiral' Expands the 'Saw' Universe While Showing its Limits

click to enlarge Chris Rock in Spiral: From the Book of Saw - Lionsgate
Chris Rock in Spiral: From the Book of Saw

Fans of the torture-porn horror franchise Saw will no doubt be confused to hear that Spiral, the latest installment, has opened in theaters. Isn’t it May? Each of the eight prior Saw films debuted on the Friday before Halloween, and from 2004-2010, they arrived like clockwork each year, almost ritualistically, constructing with each new episode the flimsy mythology of Jigsaw, the franchise’s twisted serial killer.

The plots of these autumn gorefests became increasingly incidental to the “games” at their heart, gruesome traps that Jigsaw and his apprentices compelled their victims to play on pain of death. Jigsaw always interpreted these as teaching moments. If, and only if, you had the chutzpah to gouge out your own eye, for example, to retrieve a key that had been surgically stashed there, and then use that key to unlock a timed explosive device strapped to your head, could you walk away with a renewed appreciation for life. Jigsaw purported to hate murder throughout the early films. He saw himself (and was portrayed!) as more of a philosopher, a born-again preacher animated by his own brush with death. He just wanted to get folks to live their lives to the fullest and so forth.

A total crock, naturally.

But to reiterate: The whole point of the films – the chief draw for both fans and tourists – were the “games,” generally precipitated by a cassette tape recording or TV instructional video, narrated by a red-eyed clown laying out the rules of play. The low-rent ensemble casts and campy scripts were not bugs but features, guaranteeing that the focus remained on the parade of outlandish deaths.

Spiral, which purports to be “from the book of Saw,” is the franchise’s second spinoff, and it retains key elements and personnel from earlier efforts. It’s directed by Darren Lee Bousman, who directed Saws II, III and IV; and written by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger, who wrote Jigsaw, the first spinoff in 2017. But there are key differences: A-lister appeal, for one. Chris Rock stars. He’s evidently a big fan of the franchise, and he produced the film as a personal opportunity to ‘get into horror’ and punched up the script with some stand-up material. Samuel L. Jackson and Max Minghella play supporting roles and make Spiral the most star-studded Saw film since the debut, which starred Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Princess Bride’s Cary Elwes, and a couple of dudes who would soon be more recognizable for their roles on LOST, quickly becoming a smash hit on ABC.

In Spiral, a Jigsaw copycat is wreaking havoc on the police department. As in all prior films, the locale is unnamed. Though filmed in Toronto, the cops are housed in the "South Metropolitan" police station. (Lol at modifying the generic “Metropolitan” with the more specific “South.”) Lead detective Zeke Banks, (Rock), must track down the killer as more and more of his colleagues are offed.

But Banks is a pariah on the force. His father (Jackson) had been a decorated police chief, but Banks ratted out his partner years ago and has been “looking over his shoulder” ever since. Banks might even agree with the copycat killer in theory – the police are corrupt, and desperately in need of cleansing – but he’s disgusted by the methods. He’s an outcast on the force, sure, but he’s still a cop. And some of the victims are his friends. Not every apple is a bad apple, right?

Spiral, incidentally, is the first Saw film that feels like it was filmed in an actual city, not exclusively the abandoned warehouses, derelict properties, and poop-spattered bathrooms where Jigsaw built his traps. Several scenes even transpire during daylight hours. Banks begrudgingly takes on a rookie partner (Minghella) early in the film, and together, they try to piece together clues from the killer as they arrive. It’s a standard police procedural, formula-wise.

Of the several cop “traps,” only three, including a grisly opening scene, play out in real-time. Others are mercifully shown in bits and pieces via flashback. As in previous films, the traps often invite some head scratching on mechanical and logistical fronts. (Earlier films tried to explain away the complexities by retroactively inventing a posse of Jigsaw disciples, who helped ensnare victims and set up the elaborate games.) Here, the killer’s schedule, budget and technical know-how are all better left unscrutinized.

The more difficult questions to ignore are about the premise: the killing of cops. The film was conceived, written, and filmed long before the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing summer of protests – it was originally scheduled to be released in May of last year – but a serial killer taking down a local police force in retaliation for a specific strain of misconduct (killing Black people without accountability) might have been a ballsy conceit, alive with real-world tension. There was an attempt at social resonance back in Saw VI, when the main victim was a medical insurance executive whose company had systematically denied coverage to sick clients. Was watching him mutilate himself and kill his colleagues in horrific ways meant to be catharsis during a time, (the fraught early years of Obamacare), when the evils of the insurance industry were being exposed?

Here, the corruption and abuse of which the cops are guilty couldn’t be more old-school if they tried: lying on the stand, planting evidence, roughing up witnesses. It might as well be the 1970s. And there’s no indication that Banks himself, though portrayed as a renegade, is much better than the rest of them. He reported his former partner to internal affairs for an egregious incident, but he’s still pleased as punch to beat a local drug dealer silly when trying to get information in the copycat case. Banks and his father are of course Black men, but race – and indeed, race in the context of systemic police misconduct — is off-limits.

That’s probably for the best. The prospect of “woke Saw” discourse on social media is even more terrifying than death at Jigsaw’s hands. But the film’s failure to depict a credible contemporary police department plagued by credible contemporary problems reflects the franchise’s inability to dream up anything beyond cardboard cutouts of characters and motivations. Saw is still just about blood and guts. And those are origins that maybe need not be transcended.

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