John Kramer aka Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) died fairly early on the the Saw series, but the tricky flashback/forward structure and some pre-recorded messages/pre-set death traps kept him as a presence even as disciples or copycats took over the heavy work (and, frankly, it must be pretty demanding to hand-craft all those traps) to keep the gore flowing. The series seemed to wind up with Saw 3D (2010) but had a reboot with Jigsaw (2017) that Spiral sets itself apart from – we get some mention of Kramer as an inspiration for the new killer, who calls himself Spiral and wears a pig-head and a hoodie, but this is a case of a copycat rather than a disciple. In fact, Kramer would disapprove of Spiral – the traps here are superficially similar to the Jigsaw devices, but play a lot less fair … even if the victims opt for self-mutilation over sudden death, it’s pretty much impossible for them to escape (and therefore, are unlikely to learn a lesson). The traps, in fact, are the weakest aspect of this generally okayish, mid-level franchise entry.
Among the best of the series was Saw VI, which addressed the US health insurance industry – the high concept of this one is police corruption, with Spiral targeting unethical, crooked or violent cops (the tagline ought to have been Blue Lives Splatter) though it slightly dodges the BLM bullet by making black cop Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) and his ex-police commissioner father (Samuel L. Jackson) the focus and only incidentally alluding to racial profiling. A driver killed by a cop at a traffic stop in a flashback is white, for instance – though one of the best moments hinges on a black man with even the semblance of a weapon being instantly riddled with bullets by a SWAT team. After a prologue kill in the subway, Rock barges into the film with a stand-up routine about Forrest Gump, but then calms down and makes a surprisingly good tough guy lead – he’s in bad with the rest of the department because he once ratted out his partner for straight-up murdering a witness. Max Minghella seems to be channeling Reni Santoni in Dirty Harry as idealistic rookie Schenk, saddled on the cynical veteran as a new partner, but hints are dropped early on that he’ll have a backstory which weaves in and out of everyone else’s. As the plot grinds on, more and more comes out of the backstory and only the set-piece mutilation deaths interrupt the piecing-together of the big picture (this was the real reason the killer of the series is named Jigsaw).
Oddly, this drops a lot of promising material from Jigsaw in order to start again, but relies on creatives associated with the series – writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger wrote Jigsaw (and Piranha 3D and Sorority Row, making them reboot/remake specialists) and director Darren Lynn Bousman is responsible for more Saws than anyone else and did more to shape the series than anyone except original creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell. This has that shot-in-Canada/set-in-a-rustbelt-nowhere-USA-city feel endemic to the series – deep down, there’s commentary on the state of the economy in the number of abandoned industrial sites necessary for the Jigsaw killers to create their bloody artspaces. Just as the traps aren’t as cleverly constructed as the best of the Jigsaw devices – the giant blender set to drown a crooked judge in liquidised maggoty hog carcass in Saw III is a favourite – the plot here feels loosely bolted together set beside the intricacies of the original Saws.
Still, it’s a reasonable welcome back to the cinema movie.