Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Grisly Violence and Gore, Terror, Language and Drug Content
Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
Written by: Darren Lynn Bousman & Leigh Whannell
Starring: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Donnie Wahlberg, Erik Knudsen, Franky G, Glenn Plummer, Emmanuelle Vaugier, Beverley Mitchell, Timothy Burd, Dina Meyer & Lyriq Bent
A mere year after the success of indie horror hit SAW, a sequel was rushed to theaters just in time for Halloween 2005. Unlike most slapdash sequels though, SAW II doesn’t show any signs of being a quick cash-in and is one of those rare instances where a second installment improves upon its predecessor. The plot is more focused this time around, the traps are oozing with creativity and menace, and the ending somehow manages to pull the rug out from underneath the viewer in many surprising ways. SAW II is not only better than SAW, but also ranks as the best film in the longer-than-it-needed-to-be SAW franchise.
Set after the blood-splattered events of the first film, this sequel follows Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) as he stumbles across the booby-trap-filled lair of the Jigsaw Killer. Once face-to-face with demented murderer John Kramer (Tobin Bell), Matthews comes to the horrifying realization that his son Daniel (Erik Knudsen) is currently trapped in one of Jigsaw’s sick games and he’s also now stuck in a game of his own. Elsewhere, Daniel and seven strangers awake in a fortified crackhouse that’s being pumped with nerve gas and eight antidotes are hidden in various death traps. However, the survival instinct of this new band of victims may be just as deadly as Jigsaw’s games.
One immediate improvement over the first SAW comes in SAW II’s performances. While the first film struggled with Leigh Whannell being an amateur actor and Cary Elwes coming off as laughably over-the-top during would-be emotional scenes, SAW II remedies its performances with much more believable actors and stronger dialogue. Some scenes do become a tad ham-fisted, mainly in Franky G’s performance as intimidating drug dealer Xavier. However, even Franky G’s acting is convincing for a most of the film. Erik Knudsen also does well as the youngest person stuck in the “Nerve Gas House” and Shawnee Smith makes a welcomed return to the series as former-Jigsaw-survivor-turned-player-once-again Amanda.
In the Jigsaw’s Lair storyline, we get a battle of wits and wills between Donnie Wahlberg’s detective and Tobin Bell’s serial killer. Their constant banter is especially fun as Bell milks bits of dark humor for all they’re worth and enjoys toying with Wahlberg’s already dire mental state. Their exchanges are just as entertaining and suspenseful as the gory carnage occurring in the Nerve Gas House, so that’s really saying something. Both characters return for later installments in the series and it’s easy to see why. Their performances breathe life into material that may have wound up overly clichéd in other hands.
SAW II’s dual structure does a remarkable job of balancing the two different storylines. The 95-minute running time flies by and never once comes close to overstaying its welcome. Much like the first film’s nightmare-inducing conclusion, SAW II’s ending is packed full of surprises and startling revelations. This film builds one twist on top of another and it all checks out completely, with any possible plot holes being easily filled in by quick flashbacks revealing the clues that were stored early on.
The film’s overall look is atmospheric and gritty. The crackhouse setting makes the viewer feel dirty from just looking at it and the design of Jigsaw’s lair looks like someone cranked their love for John Doe’s apartment in SE7EN up to the extreme. The editing is a bit too chaotic during intense moments, especially one scene near the end that would have been more effective if the camera wasn’t spinning around an act of self-mutilation like a flashy music video. Therein, lies my only big complaint with this sequel.
Last but certainly not least, SAW II’s traps are fiendishly creative and believable. There’s nothing that’s nearly as over-the-top as later films in the series and these simple devices are the most effective. Something like a gun-attached to a door or a spike-filled rendition of a Venus Fly Trap are sure to freak viewers out and delight gore-loving horror fans. One scene that made me wince as a teenager and still makes me wince as an adult is a twisted spin on the phrase “finding a needle in a haystack” that sees a character crawling through a pit of used syringes to find a key. The entire sequence is pure nightmare fuel and may be the single most terrifying creation in the SAW universe (which is really saying something).
With diabolical twists and fiendish traps galore, SAW II is hands-down the best film in the SAW franchise. This sequel improves upon everything that was irksome about its 2004 predecessor. The acting is better and the script is constructed in a way that keeps its hooks sunken into the viewer. There’s actual suspense and the chilling conclusion is bound to keep you thinking about it long after the credits have rolled. Before the series publicly devolved into the torture-porn punchline that it is today (with progressively ridiculous continuity and an eighth film arriving this Halloween), the first three SAW films hold up as a damn fine horror trilogy and SAW II is the biggest highlight of the entire series.