In this review I am going to give away a terrible secret:
I thoroughly enjoyed “Saw II”.
Since I thoroughly trounced the original film a year ago, I’ll probably spend most of this review justifying why this one’s better. If you already like the original, you can probably stop reading and just buy your ticket now, as you won’t likely be disappointed by what is essentially the same movie, only done right.
One of the rare instances when a sequel far outshines it predecessor, the follow-up to the wildly successful and even more wildly overrated “Saw” far outshines its source material in terms of complexity, thrills, and basic craftsmanship. While it’s far from perfect, this “bigger, faster, more” take on the now-familiar Jigsaw killer scenario improves on most of the mistakes of the original, although it naturally makes a few new ones along the way.
Improvement #1: no more Carey Elwes and Danny Glover. If there’s one thing the serial slasher genre doesn’t need, it’s legitimate actors. Here the cast is just random and obscure enough to let us know that these characters are all fair game for the grinder, and more importantly, no one is tempted to break into any histrionic fits of “acting”, which spun the original into camp territory long before the story had a chance to dig its claws in. We’ve got some returning characters: Tobin Bell has far more face-time this go-round as the mad genius Jigsaw killer, and finally has the chance to explain himself and his “work”. And my favorite character from the original, the jaw-trap victim Amanda (Shawnee Smith) gets a far bulkier role this time as she once again finds herself at the mercy of the murderer. The only recurring character who I would have preferred to have seen left in a razorwire cage is Dina Meyer, who apparently didn’t get the memo that the ham-fisted acting style of the original flick has been retired for a more somber, serious approach. Somebody get this girl a paper bag.
The new additions do a fine job: Donnie Wahlberg follows up on the promise of his blink-and-miss-it turn in “The Sixth Sense” and effectively sidesteps being labeled as nothing more than Mark’s brother (memo to Frank Stallone) by turning in a layered, convincing performance as beleaguered detective Eric Mason, whose son is one of a group of people taken captive by Jigsaw in a sealed house. The other prisoners – who have 2 hours to get out of the house before the gas that they are breathing reduces their internal tissues to liquid – include Beverly Mitchell (the “other sister” from “Seventh Heaven”, trying on Jessica Biel’s genre shoes), Franky G (“Johnny Zero”) and Emmanuelle Vaugier (“One Tree Hill”), among others – none of whom are dealing very well with their situation. As usual, the Jigsaw has left them with a way out – all they need to do is work together as a team to reach the solution. But given that the group seems to be made up of drug dealers, informants, junkies, and other assorted miscreants – all of whom are starting to cough up blood – this is not exactly Kumbaya territory.
The film starts off with a predictable return to form, with a nameless victim (okay, it’s Michael – like that means anything) strapped into one of Jigsaw’s devices: a head-trap thing that will likely snap shut before the opening titles, turning the fella’s cranium into swiss cheese. Aside from setting into motion the events of the film (Michael’s crime scene will kick the rest of the story into motion), there’s also a point being made here: this ain’t yo daddy’s “Saw”. Whereas the first film nipped at the heels of a serial killer, stumbling across the messy outcomes of the sadistic “games” he played with the members of society he felt deserved a bit of a challenge, in the sequel we watch the games as they are played.
This makes a world of difference when it comes to creating tension on the screen – unlike the first film, where we knew the outcome of nearly all the “suspense” scenes (as they were mostly told in flashback), here we have no idea who might live or die. Bodies begin to pile up within the house as Mason and his team watch from Jigsaw’s lair on video monitors, trying to find the source of the video feed and get to the survivors before their innards come out their noses. But meanwhile, it seems like Jigsaw might be playing a game with Mason himself – one that may or may not be related to what’s going on in the house. The parallel plot gimmick didn’t work for me in the original because it was mired in cheese, and the central twist was just a little too predictable. But here the setup is much more complex and fun to wrestle with, and writer/director Bousman is far better able to distract you from the man behind the curtain, leading to a far more satisfying finale. Is there a twist? Yes. Can I talk about it? No. But I was tipped off going in that there would be a final-act gimmick (what’s a horror thriller these days without one?), and I still found the trick and its revealing to be deliciously well-designed.
But enough about structure and tone and all that crap: is there blood? Oh yes, there is. It’s literally being coughed up by the 8 people in the house, and it finds other ways to make it out of their bodies and onto the floor and walls, as well. But the nastiest moment – probably one of the most cringe-inducing of the year – doesn’t involve much blood at all, but rather a pit filled with hypodermic needles. I won’t say anything more other than it’s prolonged and very, very unpleasant-looking. I was actually hoping for more contraptions and dismemberment (honestly – you go to see a movie called Saw, you’re expecting to exorcise very particular demons), but I’ll take old-fashioned suspense over gore anyday.
Now the drawbacks. First, don’t let the advertising fool you: the majority of this movie does not take place inside that booby-trapped house, despite how much we might want it to. I’m a huge fan of locked-room movies, so I was really looking forward to spending time watching these folks deal with their situation, like in “Cube” or the early scenes of the original film. The fact that over half of the film is a police procedural involving Jigsaw and detective Mason didn’t thrill me at first, but the story is interesting enough on its own and dovetails into the house story so nicely that I can understand its importance. But overall, less attention is paid to the house “tricks” than I was hoping for. The captives are given a fairly easy clue to decipher at the start of the game (which takes way too long to resolve) and the subsequent tricks are fairly uninspired and inconsistent. A few of the prisoners don’t end up revealing anything, which kind of begs the question as to why their characters even exist in the first place. But still, things keep moving along, so I let this slide.
Then there’s the question of the editing, which I’ll address very simply: ENOUGH WITH THE FUCKING CUTTING. In several scenes, Bousman is able to effectively create tension without running the footage through a Cuisinart. So why resort to the tired, overused crutch of rapid-fire, seizure-inducing smash-cuts? It’s just got to stop, people – nothing kills a suspense scene faster than a spontaneous migraine in your frontal lobe. Thankfully, it only happens twice in the film – but it does ruin those two scenes, which could have been very intense.
So that’s all I can say without giving anything away that might interfere with your enjoyment of “Saw II” – and I actually do want you to enjoy it, as opposed to disregard it or slap it about the face and neck, like its predecessor. So while the evil 8-year-old in me would like to give away the ending, I won’t. Instead, I’ll give away the ending of a different movie: it’s Earth, and it’s been Earth the whole time! Halloween would be nothing without a good, fun popcorn horror flick or two – and this year, “Saw II” is just the ticket.