Lionsgate // 2009 // 92 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // January 26th, 2010
The game comes full circle.
The sixth entry in the much-maligned Saw franchise comes to DVD, proving to be one of the best entries in a series that doesn't get much respect.
It's difficult to talk about any of the later Saw sequels without discussing heavy spoilers for those who aren't yet caught up on the series (even the text on the back of the DVD case ruins the end of Saw V), so if you haven't already seen all of the sequels I'd advise turning back now. Sound good?
Actually, I'm not even sure I can recount the plot of Saw VI; there are simply too many narrative threads coming together, too much back story to keep track of. Events are occurring both in real time and in flashbacks (to around the events of Saw III), and you'd best be familiar with all of the past films if you hope to follow along at all. If you've never seen a Saw movie -- or even if you've missed a few in the middle -- I don't suggest starting with Saw VI.
At any rate, I'll give it a shot: Saw VI begins exactly where Saw V left off, with (MAJOR SAW V SPOILERS) Agent Strahm dead and Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor, Payback) getting away with his murder and continuing to carry out Jigsaw's (Tobin Bell, The Quick and the Dead) master plan. Joining him in the mix is Jigsaw's widow, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell, Private School), who seems to be carrying out a plan of her own. As the cops close in and Jill's motives begin to reveal themselves, Hoffman must scramble to cover his tracks and ensure that the final traps are set and the game can continue.
Meanwhile (this is all happening concurrently, and is all related even though the stories rarely intersect directly), insurance executive William Easton (Peter Outerbridge, Lucky Number Slevin) is kidnapped and run through a series of traps in which he must decide the fates of Jigsaw's victims to save his family.
I have a strange relationship with the Saw films. Though I thought the original 2004 film had a pretty terrific premise, I was underwhelmed by the execution -- the overly-stylized direction, uneven performances (to say the least) and a limp "twist" ending didn't add up to a very satisfying movie. I liked Saw II even less, which took anything that was good about the first film and did away with it in favor of more of what didn't work. Then, around the third film, I began to see potential in the franchise. It was shaping up to be about something more than just torture and gore and aggro-metal music (no doubt due largely to the fact that Tobin Bell and his "Jigsaw" character finally took center stage). And while the next two films in the franchise floundered (particularly Saw V), I appreciated the fact that the sequels were actually trying to go somewhere; unlike the horror franchises of the past (the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street series, namely), the Saw series wasn't just repeating itself with every film. There was an attempt to create and build on an actual mythology -- ridiculous and convoluted as it may be. At least that's something.
In a way, the Saw series is a little like the Planet of the Apes franchise: in overstaying its welcome, it has found ways to reinvent itself and at least tries to say something different with each film. Obviously, the PofA films had genuine science fiction ideas, while the Saw series often has only twisty mythology and elaborate death traps, but I'd still argue the comparison is apt. Nowhere is it clearer than in Saw VI, the latest entry in the annual series and the best since Saw III -- one of the best in the franchise, actually. While still very much a Saw film in that it continues to build on the endlessly evolving mythology and constructs several nasty setpieces, it's got more on its mind than just torture and gore. Writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan (who wrote the previous two films, as well as Feast) are very clever in making insurance executives the target of Jigsaw's latest series of traps; not only does it give the sixth film a topical resonance that previous films have lacked (as if to really drive the of-the-moment social criticism home, the first two victims in the film -- including VH1 Scream Queens winner Tanedra Howard -- are bank lenders), but it also adds a thematic resonance that's been missing. Until now, all of Jigsaw's "traps" have been challenges to see how far a victim will go to survive. Here, though, it's all about making choices as to who lives and who dies. Sure, the metaphor is a little on the nose, but that doesn't make me any less pleased to type the words "metaphor" and "Saw" in the same sentence.
Director Kevin Greutert, who previously worked as editor on the Saw films, shows more restraint here than directors of past entries, and it's a welcome change. Gone (for the most part) are the stutter cuts and aggressively in-your-face style; gone is the aggro-metal on the soundtrack. Even gone is much of the over-the-top gore; with the exception of a gross-out opener and a go-for-broke finale, much of Saw VI feels relatively tame compared its predecessors. Sure, all these elements are present to some extent -- it is, after all, a Saw film, and the fans must be pleased before anyone else -- but they're not the film's sole reason for being. There's an actual story being told. There is, believe it or not, some character development -- particularly with Costas Mandylor's Detective Hoffman, who has been stranded as a plot device for two films now but is finally given something to work with here. I'm not arguing that Saw VI is great cinema (it may not even be a great horror movie, though it's a pretty good one), but there's enough here to suggest that the critics of the series who dismiss it entirely may not be exactly right. I should know, as I used to be a person like that. I think writing off the Saw films and lowering my expectations opened me up to seeing something more in them when revisiting them a few years later. With Saw VI, I didn't even need the extra distance; it's actually the first Saw film I liked upon first viewing.
Should you choose to check out Saw VI, make sure you sit through the end credits for a tag that will no doubt help to set up the next film.
Though the Saw films have always looked low-budget and grungy by design, I've always been pretty pleased with their presentations on DVD. It bums me out to say, then, that Saw VI is one of the most disappointing-looking DVDs in the franchise. While it's not deal-breakingly terrible, it's not up to the standard set by previous releases. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is uneven, sometimes offering strikingly garish colors and pleasing dark sequences; other times, it looks too soft and the image loses any sense of depth. While the conspiracy theorist in my secretly thinks that studios have been turning out sub-standard DVD product of late to encourage consumers to go Blu-ray, it may just be a matter of uneven source material. There's still enough to like in the DVD presentation to warrant a recommendation, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't think there was a dip in video quality. The 5.1 Dolby EX audio track makes up for it, though, with aggressive effects and clear dialogue. The Saw films have always tended to overuse the loud "sting" (usually accompanied by metal music), but Saw VI shows some restraint in this department, too. The end result is a more well-rounded sound design and a better DVD audio experience.
A pair of commentary tracks kicks off the supplemental section: the first from series producers Mark Burg, Peter Block and Jason Constantine and the second from writers Dunstan and Melton and director Kevin Greutert. Both tracks are lively and engaging (though if forced to choose, I'd pick the second track as my favorite) but will likely only appeal to fans of the series. Let's be honest, though; is there anyone who isn't a fan of the Saw films that's still watching by movie number six, much less listening to a commentary track on the movie? Also included are some lame featurettes: "The Traps of Saw VI, "Jigsaw Revealed" and "A Killer Maze: Making 'Saw: Game Over'." The last covers the making of an attraction at Universal Studios, so at least it's got some new footage; otherwise, all three featurettes can be skipped. Even more skippable are three videos for the terrible songs (by terrible bands) included in the movie -- the same kind of terrible music that has plagued the entire series. Lastly, the film's original theatrical trailer has been included.
Additionally, Saw VI is being packaged with a DVD of the first Saw film. Why this is, I couldn't say; did Lions Gate really thing that there's anyone buying Saw VI who hasn't already seen -- or, more accurately, own -- Saw? Did they just have an excess of Saw DVDs laying around? I'm not upset about it -- a free DVD is a free DVD -- but I don't quite grasp the motivation there.
If I understand correctly, the next entry in the Saw series will be the last (it will also be in 3D, which is a terrible idea). That doesn't really come as a surprise, as Saw VI was the least successful film in the franchise thus far -- the series is nearly out of steam. Unfortunately, director Kevin Greutert won't be returning, as he's already been signed to direct the sequel to Paranormal Activity. That means directing duties on VII will go back to David Hackl, the man responsible for the series low-point Saw V. I'm more than ready for the run of Saw films to come to an end, though I'll bet it resurfaces in the next few years. It's too bad one of the best and most ambitious entries in the series was overlooked. Saw VI finally suggests the series could be going somewhere. I guess it's too little, too late.
One of the best entries in the series, but strictly for the fans.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Music Videos
* Official Site