The big screen, the pitch-black room and eye-wateringly expensive snacks all returned this week as Cinemas finally reopened here on plague island, and with those doors swinging back open, Spiral – the latest Saw related title – came with it.
The murder of an off-duty, corrupt police officer in an overkill fashion is the first in a spate of police killings that are seemingly being carried out by a Jigsaw copycat, as such, it’s up to the beacon of morality, Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) to investigate this chain of murders whilst simultaneously training up his new rookie partner, William Schenk (Max Minghella) – seemingly the only person he can trust as the investigation uproots longstanding, institutional corruption, how timely.
Although the quality in the horror genre is something I find to be incredibly volatile, and as it currently stands whilst writing this, I’m more than a little indifferent on Spiral. By no means an innovator or revolutionary but equally far from the worst Saw entry, it struck me as predictable when in the screening but perhaps the appreciation for being back in the walls of Cineworld Sheffield has boosted the film in my estimations, ever so slightly.
Then, getting into the film itself, I can’t say I was particularly blown away by any of the performances. A large cast, the lesser characters feel barely rendered, let alone realized and as such, it becomes largely disengaging when its three main stars aren’t taking up the screen, which leads me onto those. The trio of Chris Rock, Max Minghella and the scene-stealing Samuel L Jackson does well with what they’re given, especially the latter two.
Chris Rock’s charm and charisma are undeniable, I mean, there’s no bigger reason for his successes as a stand-up comic than that, yet anchoring a horror-thriller feels a little like a step too far – well, for the most part. I’m hesitant to wholly blame his performance as believe me, he’s very much let down by some poor technical aspects, but in what’s perhaps his second or third ‘serious’ role (outside of documentary), it inspires an almost Jekyll and Hyde type performance. In part playing on his comedic ability and natural on-screen presence whilst the other 50% is this over-delivered, certainly overly serious effort that’s topped off with this odd squint/pout hybrid expression as if he’s been put on the spot to display a crime-solving face and it does not land at all.
However, to Rock’s credit, when it’s given the chance, his passion for the series does shine through. Not the first time that the Saw franchise has attracted an A-list celebrity fan to its stories – see the inclusion of late Linkin Park frontman, Chester Bennington in The Final Chapter – the direction Rock wants to steer in, is refreshing, especially for those like myself who’ve seen their personal regard for the franchise wane as the balance shifted to favour nonsensical gratuity for mere shock value. Especially early on, the lead character of Banks is compelling, a well-inferred backstory and some surprisingly comedic instances made him a personal standout, it’s just that the high bar is rarely then met as the rest of the film unfolds.
Next, we have Minghella and Jackson. It’s a difficult task to get into these roles given I don’t fancy spoiling the entire film on its first week of release but I’d label them as strong support on the whole, though they are similarly shackled by what’s given to them. Jackson is his usual self, especially that version of the past six years or so as he’s developed a tendency to stamp his presence on films from a backseat role from The Hateful Eight to Shaft something that’s repeated here. Minghella would find himself the opposite, still very much defining his career, his supporting role as Schenk was a solid contrast to Rock’s lead and if anything, deserved a lot more of the focus, straight off the bat.
Elsewhere, I was far from being blown away. Effectively contradicting my earlier point on why I’m not a massive champion of Saw and the like, Spiral equally didn’t feel worthy of that franchise tag in a narrative sense. Business-wise I fully understand how financially successful a horror film can be, something I’m sure is more the case now, especially given the reopening period, but it felt a little generic. Not as grand and/or grim as its [somewhat] related films, it felt like an attempt at being David Fincher’s Se7en only missing the sense of character and its themes. Playing the impostor as it currently stands, I can see the potential for the Spiral storyline winning me over, but it’d need to be significantly stronger than what I got from its cornerstone, maiden film.
Visually it was very much a mixed bag. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, a veteran of the Saw franchise, the opening half-hour was genuinely amateurish, scenes with ridiculous amounts of cuts that you’ll absolutely blink and miss something, sub-par cinematography and, for as good as it might well be, a forced and intrusive use of its soundtrack, it purports to be a blockbuster yet fails in living up to its perceived identity on account of it being a way off the standards set by those big event-style titles.
Flawed? The answer to that question is a resounding Yes, but does it have merits? With a handful of solid performances and a relatively engaging thriller aspect to it, there’s enough to make it a justifiable cinema trip, even if you head to your nearest big screen purely for the sake of popcorn entertainment.