Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) returns, this time as self-styled family counselor. It seems that Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) is not paying proper attention to his troubled son Daniel (Erik Knudsen), and so the quirky serial murderer takes a moralistic interest. As before, Jigsaw points out to anyone who will listen that he doesn’t actually kill anyone, just sets up his victims and then offers them “choices,” to do as he likes to point out, never actually kills anyone, only gives his victims “choices.” Their icky deaths are their own fault.
Such reasoning was the premise of Saw, a surprise hit that recycled hoary psycho killer conventions to extra-splattery effect (“There will be blood”). Saw II faces the daunting prospect of repeating the shock of the spare original, which was shot essentially in one horrible room where prisoners were given to think they had to saw off their own limbs to escape (the few scenes shot elsewhere were least compelling). The second film opens out its scope — such as it is — to include other spaces and more characters. And so the lack of shock is irrelevant: after all, sequels repeat, expand, and make more noise by definition. And besides, the opening weekend for Saw II was relatively and ominously huge: $31.7 million, compared to an $18.3 million first weekend for the first incarnation. All of which goes to show that it hardly matters what anyone has to say about Saw II.
And so: Jigsaw appears means to teach Eric a lesson, imagining that his own terminal cancer grants him moral authority (it’s always the way with self-loving serial killers: they think they’re anointed). As he puts it, his own looming death provides meaningful context for his “work”: “Those who do not appreciate life do not deserve life.” He makes a big deal of breathing into his oxygen mask and acting feeble when the cops “discover” him in his latest lair, where he’s surrounded by monitors and gadgets, grim reminders of that “work.” Here he means to instruct his more or less captive audience in what’s “missing” from his dead victims, “a vital piece of the human instinct to survive.” Who knew instincts had pieces?
Eric arrives on this scene feeling pretty wasted and miserable himself. As you’ve learned by now, he’s been riding a desk since his own coppish corruption was exposed five years ago. Such official sanction isn’t enough for Jigsaw, though: he’s gathered together an assortment of Matthews’ rigged-evidence victims, recently released from prison and put them in a booby-trapped house with young Daniel. He’s also arranged to have every room monitored by video camera, the feeds available for viewing by the cops, in Jigsaw’s lair.
As always, Jigsaw (“Call me John,” he tells Eric) is chatty in the extreme, explaining his games far beyond the point of interest. So, surrounded by cops in SWAT gear (including Eric’s perky ex-partner Kerry [Dina Meyer]), he explains, and then explains some more, the game has “simple” rules: Eric has to listen to him. Eric has to get him a glass of water. Eric has to own up to his bad deeds. Of course, Eric can’t quite manage all these demands, especially as he’s provoked by those shots of his kid chocking on toxic gas in that house full of bloodthirsty criminals and junkies.
They’re not exactly getting along, either, as they have their own set of game rules to figure out, and with one of them dying from a rule broken every few minutes, they’re not exactly becoming more patient. Xavier (Jonny Zero‘s Franky G) and Jonas (Glenn Plummer) argue incessantly over who’s in charge, or at least who has the best idea. X goes for the sledgehammer approach, sort of literally, using a baseball bat outfitted with nails to look like a mace to slam through doors and menace his fellow prisoners. Joshua, by contrast, seeks the most copasetic route, even as everyone else thinks he’s a wuss, thinking too hard when thinking seems beside the point.
Among the several girls in this game is Amanda (Shawnee Smith), returned from Saw and seemingly trying not to be a heroin addict anymore, seemingly terrified by the fact that she’ been hauled back into the game because she beat it the first time out. She’s something of a whiner, and fond of narrating tedious woe-is-me flashbacks, so when X dumps her into a hole full of needles to make her “face her fear” and oh yes, dig around for the key that will open some door, she’s not exactly looking like a pitiful victim. More like an unsympathetic victim, one you wouldn’t mind being rid of.
In fact, none of the players in this game — especially the tragically dim-witted girls Laura (Beverley Mitchell) and Addison (Emmanuelle Vaugier) — is particularly appealing. To be fair, they also have to endure Jigsaw’s incessant riddling and explaining, not to mention his insistence that their bad decisions and gruesome deaths appear on closed-circuit tvs. As in the first movie, the game is multiply layered and not nearly so clever as the villain imagines, comprising all manner of bloody abuses, including a gun rigged to shoot through an inquisitive eyeball, a furnace that locks down and burns up the silly fellow who’s followed instructions to crawl into it. Body after body is weakened by fear and gas, then penetrated in some terrible way.
The focus on sadistic pleasures might raise questions about audiences’ desire to “watch,” but even more than in the first film — where the economy of the single room’s psychic tortures was remarkable, at least until the family got involved — it’s hard to care who gets what punishment or how Jigsaw plans everything to lead to the expected big twist finale. “Overkill” doesn’t begin to describe it.