In the first Saw film, writers James Wan and Leigh Whannell concocted a clever premise that had two trapped men vying for the grisliest sacrifice among each other in order to win the Jigsaw Killer's game, and move closer to the dream of freedom, but a related plot involving a police investigation was clumsily drawn out, and had us suffering through painfully bad acting and terrible dialogue until a superb twist closed the film on a viciously cruel note.
Unlike their stillborn efforts to spin an ‘international' franchise of American Psycho sequels, Lions Gate left the filmmaker alone for the sequel, though the need for more blood was an obvious concession to get people hooked on what was clearly destined to become a new and highly profitable series.
With newcomer Darren Lynn Bousman directing and co-writing the script, the second Saw entry became a real movie: a group of misfits have to find the tricky keys to get out of a house before lethal gas spews into the vents, while a secondary story had a police officer and his team struggling to find his kidnapped son, aided by the taunting, doublespeak riddles of the Jigsaw Killer. The scriptwriters composed a stable balance of plot, character, bloodletting, and a tense third act with excellent cross-cutting, until a twist made it clear the film was a setup for a third entry.
The cheat was forgivable, because the Jigsaw's games were exceptionally nasty, they propelled the plot forward, and they gradually winnowed the group of cops and misfits – including Amanda, the lone survivor of Jigsaw's prior Olympics - to a handful of Jigsaw veterans, with new emotional baggage, and plenty of blood-encrusted gashes.
Amanda proved to be the cheat, as she was revealed to be the mole who helped Jigsaw concocts the latest wave of games from which the misfits couldn't really escape. A flashback montage established some weird bond between the former captive and her tormentor, and the unofficial presumption was drugs are bad, and a good work ethic was the key to living a productive, and drug-free life.
That bond forms the core of Saw III, but with Wan and Whannell back as the credited screenwriters, the latest entry falls back on the clumsy plotting that made the first entry so interminable, and the relationship between teacher/father/priest Jigsaw and rebellious trainee Amanda never goes beyond petulant exchanges. After three films, it's still unclear why a girl who almost had her skull torn open by a reverse-bear trap wants to remain with a lunatic, let alone commit her own versions of the Jigsaw Olympics.
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A huge use of newly filmed flashback footage bloats the running time to just under two hours, and certain segments run far too long when the intended point's been already established. Even the finale suffers from a re-emphasis of details, with the dying and bedridden Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) repeating the same game rules to a shell-shocked (and thoroughly wasted) Angus Macfadyen, just in case a befuddled audience member still didn't understand that the latest games were to teach Amanda to honor the rules, and not go solo.
Director Bousman may have recognized the script's overt weaknesses, so he focuses on the games that frequently lurch into voguish torture porn: guy embedded with steel rings must rip free to stop a ticking time bomb; detective Kerry (Dina Meyer) has less than a minute to avoid the tearing of her spinal column and front epidermis; the killer of Macfadyen's son has his limbs and arms twisted to a splintering mass of bones and knotted muscle; and the judge who freed the killer almost drowns in a vat of pureed, maggot-infested pig carcasses.
The nature of the franchise mandates a higher and more ingenious level of cruelty, but the results of the standard litmus test for these films is pretty clear: if the intense and grisly horrors were reduced to off-screen moments, the skeletal drama and surviving character conflicts would be indistinguishable from a cable TV flick, and that's sadly all that Saw III really manages to be.
Maple's DVD offers an unrated version of the film (more viscera, one presumes), and a decent set of extras that should keep fans happy until the inevitable special edition comes out (which, if the label's clever, should be highly evocative of the genre, like a fancy Halloween gift set: a 12” blood-filled buzz saw, with recesses for all of the Saw DVDs, and pressure-sensitive hubs that emit the Jigsaw's voice when a DVD is removed).
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan