The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Saw II

Originally published 10/31/05
Full review behind the jump

Saw II

: Darren Lynn Bousman
: Darren Lynn Bousman, Leigh Whannell
: Mark Burg, Gregg Hoffman, Oren Koules
: Donnie Wahlberg. Tobin Bell, Erik Knudsen, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, Franky G

Saw II
carries on the ghoulish chronicling of the exploits of The Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell), who claims he’s never killed anyone and if people would simply play the game he’s set up by the “rules”, they’d escape alive. Sure, they didn't ask to play these games, and at the end they may be missing a limb or an eyeball or some flesh they wouldn’t have normally wanted to part with, but they won’t be dead, so no harm no foul, right?

But, reflecting the sloppy thinking of his creators, Jigsaw cheats. His Torquemada-esque scenarios, which he calls bloody altruism designed to make people appreciate life again, are really about creating shocking horror movie plots. They depend on wild coincidence and psychic foreknowledge of how people will think, what they will do in every situation, and down to the exact second, when they will make certain logical leaps or discover important props. Those chilling twist endings he goes to such trouble to set up would never come to pass unless 100 such little things didn’t unfold just so. Really what Jigsaw is saying is:
follow your lines in the script, which I clearly have a copy of, and we’re guaranteed to reach that “gotcha” moment I’m herding the audience towards.

Jigsaw’s rather invasive form of
carpe diem stems from his own diagnosis with terminal cancer. He uses it as a bullying point – why arrest, why even try to beat information out of him, when he’s already at the outer threshold of pain? This is not the first movie to crassly make poetic hay out of a fatal disease, but there’s an unsettling cockiness to it here.

It does have the drawback, though, of creating diminishing returns in the sequel potential department. So part of the business here, besides another helping of histrionic acting, laughably juvenile police work, and elaborate snuff, is going to be settling how the producers intend to get
Saw III into theatres, as well as the inevitable IV, V and VI.

The previous movie centered around two men chained in a grimy industrial bathroom. One, Dr. Gordon, seemed to escape at the end, but if he did, it renders one of this movie’s surprises all-but impossible, and if he didn’t, that sort of scotches Jigsaw’s high-brow claim about not killing anyone by his own hand. But if I stop for every glaring plot hole I’d never find my way to the plot itself.

This time Jigsaw has broadened his ambitions, and constructed an elaborate “game” with eight potential victims locked in a booby-trapped house. A nerve gas is pumping in through the vents that will make them hemorrhage to death in two hours unless they can access one of the many “antidote” syringes hidden in ominous devices in the various rooms. One of the “players” is Amanda (Shawnee Smith), who escaped from the gruesome “bear trap” device in the previous movie and is understandably annoyed that so few people care to rely on her previous experiences. Then again, if they listened to her advice they wouldn’t set off so many of the traps, which is what the fans pay to see anyway.

We open with a police snitch named Michael (Noam Jenkins) finding himself on the wrong side (the inside) of a “Venus Fly Trap Mask” meant to evoke that infamous “bear trap”. Jigsaw has sewn the key up inside Michael’s head, so to save his life he’ll have to cut one of his own eyes out.

Michael’s not so much the prey here – this “game” is designed to attract the attention of temperamental police detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), whose teenage son Daniel (Erik Knudsen) is one of the prisoners in the house. His specialty as a cop seems to be planting evidence and, failing that, physical abuse. When he barges into Jigsaw’s hideout with a SWAT team and sees his son with the other kidnappees on a bank of monitors, he wants to enact every angry cop cliché written all over Jigsaw in the time allotted, even though this is pretty much guaranteed to fail and make him look like a fool.

That’s why this movie is more like Friday the 13th with gadgets added and the virginal heroine removed. All our “heroes” are morally-compromised idiots who roll down the assembly line towards their fate, and Jigsaw is the cool guy with the toys who probably memorized all of Kevin Spacey’s dialogue from Se7en. This is a franchise where the sociopath is going to win every time, and we’re told to enjoy it.

The victims in the house aren’t any more promising than Det. Matthews. There’s muscle-bound hothead Xavier (the empathically over-gesticulating Franky G), whose solemn duty is to do the most ignorant and dangerous thing possible in every situation and yell at or hit anyone who questions him. Then there’s Laura (Beverley Mitchell), whose contribution is to be cowering and helpless, and various other broad-brushed types determined to squabble away their last minutes rather than cooperate.

In a sense this central plot and its deadline offer a stronger sense of story cohesion than the hash of multiple flashbacks and side vignettes that made up the original Saw. The budget has also increased and it’s noticeable onscreen, if all-pervading scuzz can be said to have an extra layer of polish, this movie demonstrates it.

But if you get down to it this movie doesn’t really intend to scare you. Persistent cringing would be a more desired response. It is about one long scene after another where people slowly, excruciatingly author their own mutilation for the dubious hope of maybe not dying at the end. Success or failure depends on the ability of the director to stage these scenes – like a character thrown into a pit of syringes, or another trapped in an oven with a long row of burners lighting one by one towards him – with intensity. Co-writer/Director Darren Lynn Bousman, making his feature debut here, gets the squirming and the shrieking on film effectively, though he fares about as well as his predecessor with keeping moments of unintentional comedy to a minimum (not very well). And there’s still an over-reliance on rapid-fire montages of clips from earlier in the movie, which endeavor to make the explanation of the plot twists seem much more complex than they actually are.

If you’ve read enough of my reviews you’ll know I’m not opposed to pain, violence or gore in and of themselves. But even imaginative examples of those traits alone don’t constitute a movie. It’s barely even the “game” Jigsaw describes it as. It’s easy to win a game when you write all the rules and don’t let anyone else see the game board. People who enjoy Saw II must enjoy games like that, with them in charge, of course.


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