Saw II (2005)

Starring Shawnee Smith, Donnie Wahlberg, Tobin Bell, Lyriq Bent, Beverley Mitchell, Emmanuelle Vaugier, Frankie G

Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

Right up front I’ll tell you this, Saw II is a stronger film than its predecessor. That’s not to say the original is bad in any way. It’s got flaws. Deep-rooted faults that cannot slink past any amount of in-your-face visceral thrills completely unseen. Saw had a weighty midsection that could’ve used some time on the treadmill. The jaw trap sequence was the shit, no doubt. The Danny Glover sub-plot was the pits, though. The disjointed narrative was nothing new, but it was refreshing to see a horror effort going the extra step to be something different. And, man, what a killer ending. Whether you had the foresight to know what was gonna go down, the combination of the pacing, Cary Elwes’ maddening cries and Charlie Clouser’s industrial score was still enough to thread you through the ringer nerve by nerve. Not only that, but it left the proverbial door to a sequel wide open. So here we are, nearly a year after the first film’s success, with a follow-up forging its way through skepticism to get to the big screen.

A story originally penned by Bousman as a work of its own, then later Saw-ified by scribe Leigh Whannell, picks up shortly after the events of the first film. Jigsaw, still ridden with cancer, is up to his old “life lesson” games again. A poor schmuck named Michael who served as an informant wakes up to find himself in a room with what we all recognize by now as the “venus flytrap” device attached to his face – a piece of craftsmanship that would make Barbara Steele cringe. Michael’s untimely demise effectively lays the groundwork for the violence that ensues and triggers Detective Matthews’ (Wahlberg) renewed involvement in the Jigsaw case.

This divorced dad with a rebellious teenage son picks up on a single clue from the recent crime scene pinning down Jigsaw’s whereabouts. Police subsequently storm a ramshackle warehouse (note to cops: don’t blast your sirens when performing a raid, there’s something to be said about the element of surprise) and find their killer within. But he’s not going to be brought in so easily. Matthews discovers eight people have been locked inside an undisclosed house, nerve agent (“similar to the Tokyo attacks”) pumping through the air vents poisoning the prisoners within. Furthermore, Jigsaw reveals he has Matthews son.

Among those trapped and slowly dying in the dilapidated house is Amanda (Smith), junkie survivor of the first film. Surrounded by complete strangers all questioning why they’ve been brought together, she knows Jigsaw’s game and knows it must be played in order to survive. The goal here: find the antidote for the poison they’ve been exposed to. But it isn’t that easy. Every member in the house is each forced into a lethal test to get a hypodermic needle full of the life-saving antidote.

By now you should grow accustomed to one fact about the realism of the Saw films: it doesn’t just take the backseat to flashy style, it opts to ride in the trunk, making way for the wicked plot twists and turns, of which there are plenty. It goes without saying that the stakes have been raised. The playing field is satisfyingly larger and the canvas on which to splash, vomit, and shed blood has been expanded with tender, sadistic care to create a living nightmare, one brimming with psychological and physical fears. Saw II doesn’t politely ask for your attention, it aggressively throttles you into submission. Bridging the intensity of the original entry’s first and third act, Bousman goes to exhausting, and auspicious, lengths to sustain various notes of paranoia, cruelty and that familiar Darwinian survival of the fittest.

It’s a disappointment that those we’re supposed to care about don’t elicit much sympathy on our end – a revealing awkward constant of the Saw universe. How do you create appealing characters targeted by a killer who has deemed these people too despicable to live unless they prove themselves otherwise? Especially once you get into their past. Dr. Gordon and Adam never got much love from me; the more I knew about them, the less I cared whether they lived or walked out of that bathroom in a loving embrace. I was more interested in how the mystery unfolded. The same can be said here. Amanda being the exception, our band of victims are a fairly unlikable lot who never come to realize working together will be their salvation. Even Detective Matthews is a flawed hero and Wahlberg, while giving it his all, proves himself to be a studious disciple of the DeNiro school of rage acting.

Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw continues to be one of the genre’s most interesting modern villains. Hooked up to IV tubes and wearing his familiar cloak, Bell delivers the most affecting blows with a hushed voice, calm demeanor and choice moments of silence. Might I add that his pig-face guise freaks the crap out of me and I’m glad to see it come back. Jigsaw’s traps are simpler this time out – they haven’t lost their malicious edge, however. One of the best “tests” is devoid of gears and spring mechanisms. All it simply entails is a pit of syringes. I will say no more.

Bousman, cinematographer David Armstrong and production designer David Hackl go out of their way to distance themselves from the look of the first film, yet the visual language established by director James Wan and editor Kevin Greutert is effectively emulated to craft a sequel that works hand in severed hand with its original. You can watch the two back-to-back. The differences will be noticeable but they believably co-exist in the same world. That’s more than I can say about some sequels.

Let’s face it, the Saw films are supreme products of their time. Vigorous. Kinetic. Hyper. Rock video posturing for the thriving, ever-changing MTV generation. A tad ridiculous? Sure, you can say they are. I won’t disagree with you there. At their core, though, there‘s an unwavering message that touches on the present state of humanity that certainly rings true. For that I’m grateful. Saw II fills in that piece of the puzzle many genre offerings this year have been missing.

3 out of 5

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Jon Condit