More victims! More puzzles! More Jigsaw! So why didn't this sequel to the 2004 indie horror hit blow Judge Bill Gibron away? We don't know. Must be something he saw.
Our review of Saw II: Two-Disc Uncut Edition, published October 31st, 2006, is also available.
Oh, yes, there will be BLOOD!
Sequels are, even in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genre, one of the most difficult cinematic art forms to get right. There is the unmistakable burden of being faithful to the original movie while expanding and exploiting what made the first film such a hit in the first place. Do it well and you are a box office hero. Get it wrong and you're Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin. Judging by the number of nauseating examples, very few sequels actually make the grade. But a chosen few avoid the potential pitfalls and stand on their own. Aliens managed to take Ridley Scott's technocratic old dark-house film and manipulate it into a rip-roaring action film. Terminator 2: Judgment Day tricked out the finer facets of the original's time-traveling assassin story to literally change the way modern movies are made. Even some of the Friday the 13th films found inventive ways to rework the same tired slasher routine.
Saw II is somewhere in between. It is definitely a follow-up film, one that fuels a now viable franchise (Saw III is on the way as we speak). It also expands on the original's cleverness and cruelty while further exploiting the serial-killer character at the center of the story. It definitely magnifies the first film's tension while taking the more metaphysical elements of the narrative to new heights. Yet, something feels a little off about this perfectly professional production. Somewhere within the overriding Saw mythology, a cog is jammed or a gear has come loose. Where the initial offering crackled with a kind of inventive dread, the sequel merely skims suspense. Perhaps it's because we've been through Jigsaw's manic manipulation before, or maybe, by opening up the movie, the creators of Saw II have disturbed the very claustrophobic conceit that made its predecessor so successful.
Facts of the Case
It is several months after the events in Saw. Jigsaw (Tobin Bell, 24), the cancer-ridden serial killer from the first film is still on the loose, wreaking his own special brand of havoc. When Kerry (Dina Meyer, Starship Troopers), the policewoman on the case, stumbles across the scene of another horrifying murder, she calls on fellow cop Eric Mathews (Donnie Wahlberg, The Sixth Sense) for his input. Why? Well, Jigsaw has asked for him personally. It turns out the psychopath has Mathews's son locked up in a house with seven others. A nerve gas is slowly leaking into the space. In three hours, the front door will open but, unfortunately, the nerve agent will slowly kill them all in two. The captives must solve several puzzles and locate syringes full of antidote if they want to stay alive. Each conundrum has a deadly consequence if solved improperly. As Mathews discovers Jigsaw's lair—and the man himself—he is too required to "play a game." He must sit and listen to the killer's confessions as his son slowly dies or choose to take action before everyone is dead, but control of this situation is up for grabs as Jigsaw and Mathews play a fatal cat-and-mouse game over the fate of the individuals in the house.
When Saw leapt out of Sundance two years ago to stun and shock the jaded horror audience, its self-contained creepiness was a weird kind of wake-up call to the brainless and busy movie macabre, mired in stupidity and endless repetition. Saw was seen as a sort of savior, a messiah for all that was wrong with the low-budget fright flick. There was, of course, a rationale for such respect. Saw, through director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell made the case that tension could terrify just as easily as gratuitous gore, and that a smashing trick ending can make up for some occasional narrative slights. They were right; the movie was a major cult hit. It was no surprise then when a sequel was announced; no one in Tinsel Town lets a success go by without some serious redux consideration.
Of course, the original film didn't leave many possibilities for potential plots. Some could see the character of Dr. Gordon, played by Carey Elwes, surviving his self-amputation and returning to track down his tormentor. Others argued that Jigsaw, who proved his viability as a villain by exuding evil without ever once really appearing onscreen (until the end, that is), would return to continue his vigilante-like vendetta against the world. Yet few figured that Saw II would simply reset the storyline, dragging up an ancillary element from the original movie to make up its new configuration.
First-time director Darren Lynn Bousman, taking over for the great, if gimmicky, James Wan, has managed to maintain the original film's perfected claustrophobia while bringing a new aura of angst to the production. Sure, some of Saw II plays like a retread of those hoary old '80s horror films, its narrative fleshed out with unimportant characters who die quick, grisly, time-frame friendly deaths. There is also a lot of post-modern preening in this film, attempts to keep the newly-cynical adolescents locked in their seats for the duration. Yet unlike Saw, which was more or less a puzzle box with two potential solvers trapped inside, Saw II opens up the concept, focusing primarily on the deadly dilemmas and becomes far less interactive in the process.
When you watched the original, you got the impression that, throughout the struggle, the clues to the victims' salvation were right before their eyes. In Saw II, however, it seems Jigsaw has cheated a little, making his traps too easily sprung, never really guaranteeing the players will endure the game. Sure, this is a clever, creative way of extending the normal mass-murderer ideal (especially since Jigsaw personally does very little killing here), but one can start to see the holes in the overall idea. Saw as a franchise will grow very stale, very soon, if the riddles, not the characters, become the primary concern.
From an individual standpoint, the movie doesn't really offer anybody to champion. About the only likeable person is Amanda, played by Shawnee Smith, yet our regard for her stems directly from her previous involvement with Jigsaw. She was the drug addict wearing the reverse bear-trap apparatus in Saw. Indeed, except for an unfortunate run in with a needle pit, Amanda is a scare somnambulist, zombified for most of the movie. The rest of the cast is adequate, if not very likeable. Donny "the artist formerly known as a New Kid" Wahlberg has got his "F"-bomb-laden shtick down pat. You'd never know he was a cop, since he's not really playing a law enforcement officer. His character, as created, is more or less a justice avoidance specialist. Dina Meyer, whose role in the original was more or less usurped by Danny Glover's oddness, is better this time around, probably because she has much more to do here. As the various victims, only Franky G as Xavier and Eric Knudsen as Wahlberg's bad-seed son manage to stand out. Even the usually great Glenn Plummer appears to be under the Saw spell. His performance is reined in, lacking wit or spark.
As for the shiver set pieces, one has to admit they are pretty good. There's a nice nod to Dario Argento's Opera, a particularly nasty Plexiglas cube, and an opening bit of brazenness involving a death mask, a scalpel, and a key placed conveniently behind the victim's eye. Yet the other two toppers—the needle pit and the cremation chamber—are rather anticlimactic. You understand what might happen, anticipate it even as it is playing out, and shake your head in realized resolve when it more or less occurs as you expected. There are a couple of additional gore moments (involving a bat laden with spikes and a rather large knife) but we aren't treated to the kind of gruesome Grand Guignol of the first film.
Or better yet, Saw II doesn't feel as bloody. Maybe it's the lack of impact that comes with familiarity. Perhaps it's the way the scenes were shot by director Bousman (who does a bang-up job for what is his first feature film). It could be the lack of character context; it's hard to get worked up over the deaths of people we've barely met. Though a consistent level of fear flows all throughout Saw II, the clockwork scariness of the first is definitely missing. It's a minor misstep, the kind one comes to expect from a sequel, but it doesn't bode well for the franchise's future.
Then there is the overall message of the movie. Something most fans overlook is the weird moral core at the center of the Saw films. In the original, Jigsaw was sort of John Doe-ing us, making people pay for their crimes, both social and moral, by making them come face to face with the wicked aspects of their personalities. In essence, it was the standard serial-killer-as-God concept, an entity of unlimited power personally measuring out the vengeance that these individuals deserved. In Saw II, the structure is the same—everyone in the house has a criminal past—but the murders are never the mirrors of the victims' inner vice. Yes, Jigsaw sets up each puzzle with a personalized note, but that doesn't mean the intended individuals always participate—or if they do, get the point.
If there is one unanswered question left in the entire Saw series, one that hopefully will be countered somewhere along the line, it is, "Why does Jigsaw do what he does?" As good as Tobin Bell is in the role, he really never gets the kind of psychopath soliloquy we've come to expect from our slayers. Indeed, now that we've sat through two of his maniacal master plans, you'd figure he'd let us in on his overall scheme.
All this taken into consideration, it is easy to say that Saw II is not the original film. Taken on its own terms, it is an engaging, entertaining horror film. Side-by-side comparisons are never really fair, and the purpose of the franchise is to invite directors with differing ideals and styles into the Saw world and let them loose on the basic elements of the movie. It is supposed to be open to interpretation, and in this case, Bousman (with a little help from Whannell) has done an excellent job. Fans foaming for the first film's novelty will probably be disappointed here. Saw II suffers from what could easily be called Final Destination syndrome. Since it argues that the characters are more or less interchangeable, it asks us to accept the premise and the way in which it is utilized as the means for its macabre. If you don't find it scary in the first place, more of the same will not supply the shivers. If, on the other hand, you are looking for an above-average offering with good tension, interesting killings, and an unexpected twist at the end (on par, or maybe even better, than the original) , you will thoroughly enjoy Saw II. Jigsaw's days may be numbered, but his franchise appears to be ready for the really long haul.
From a sound and vision standpoint, Lionsgate delivers another delightful technical package. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is pristine and near-perfect, with its reliance of greens and grays really giving off a menacing vibe of rot and decay. The colors are crisp and the details are readily defined. From the aural angle, the Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 EX is amazing (there is also a standard 2.0 that is pretty good as well). This is a movie that utilizes the audio as well as the atrocities to measure out its macabre, and the mix here captures the creepiness with perfect ambient expertise. We sense the presence of unseen sinister forces all throughout the decrepit house, and the eerie underscoring helps seal the sonic deal.
As for the added content, get ready to be rather underwhelmed. Since, as you know, there is another DVD version of this title coming out around Halloween (when Saw III is set to open), the material included here is interesting, but nominal at best. There is an audio commentary featuring Bousman, Wahlberg and actress Beverly Mitchell. Perhaps the most perplexing thing about this alternate audio track is that they'd have Mitchell sit in, especially when her character makes a rather speedy exit from the narrative. Otherwise, Wahlberg is overly infatuated with a dark-haired actress in the film, Bousman discusses some of the inspirations for the puzzles, and all three agree that Tobin Bell and Dina Meyer are "amazing." Genial and filled with jokes, this is not a serious scene-by-scene deconstruction. Instead, it's a group of participants celebrating a job well done—at least in their eyes.
In addition, we are treated to various featurettes focusing on assorted aspects of the movie. Something called "Jigsaw's Game" is nothing more than an EPK excuse for a three-minute highlight reel. "The Traps of Saw II" heading offers four mini-documentaries for the murderous elements in the movie, in total lasting for about 20 minutes. "Bits and Pieces: The Props of Saw II shows us how many of the killing machines were made and a storyboard-to-scenes comparison supplies another quartet of offerings, showing how closely the filmmaking followed the preparation. Along with a series of trailers and a gallery of production stills, this is a good, but not great, collection of content. Guess we'll have to wait for October to get the real "goodies."
Easily trumping most of the trash that passes for horror in our modern movie clime, Saw II is better than this review may have you believe. As a huge proponent of the first film, this critic anticipated this sequel with both dread and delight. At his core, he was easily entertained and more or less happy with everything the new film tried, but just because it was liked doesn't mean it was perfect. Saw II has some of the same flaws as the first film and, it's sad to say, it is not as easy to ignore them the second time around. What Wan and Whannell did was simple: they went for broke, hoping their chutzpah would win the audience over. It worked. For Saw II, you can sense the shirts sitting back and making certain that the franchise stays fiscally sound and cinematically viable. Usually, we don't see the punches being pulled in a major motion picture, but Saw II does halt when it should horrify. The original film will certainly go down as a minor masterwork somewhere in the future of fright. The sequel will only be seen as more of the same—for good and for bad.
Saw II is found not guilty and is free to go. Lionsgate is lionized for being so obvious with its double-dip dynamics, and is warned that next time, they should completely trick out the first DVD version of its titles.
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Scales of Justice
• Full-length audio commentary featuring director Daren Lynn Bousman and actors Donnie Wahlberg and Beverley Mitchell
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