Providing your standards aren't too high, "Saw II" is a worthy follow-up to its grisly predecessor. While most horror sequels are more like remakes, this one takes a different tack in continuing the first film's sadistic life-or-death gamesmanship in which a psycho named Jigsaw tortures those he sees as morally weak and unworthy of the gift of life. Placing them in elaborately engineered situations, Jigsaw tests how far his victims are willing to go to save their own lives.
First-time feature director Darren Lynn Bousman (taking over for James Wan, now an executive producer) grabs the audience immediately by the lapels, opening with a twisted Buñuelian variation on one of the "tests" from the original "Saw." A police informant awakens to find himself almost naked aside from a steel-jawed death mask designed to spring shut, driving dozens of spikes into his skull, if he fails to unlock it in time. He is given a scalpel and a fairly strong hint about where on his body the key has been hidden.
When police later discover the crime scene, there is a message scrawled on the ceiling: "Look closer Detective Mathews." Det. Eric Mathews, played by Donnie Wahlberg with the utmost of seriousness, is a burnout with a troubled teenage son, an ex-wife and a fetching ex-partner, Kerry (Dina Meyer), with whom he had a fling that ended his marriage, and he's been singled out for reasons that will become clear.
Mathews and Kerry, abetted by a SWAT team, quickly close in and capture Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) in his booby-trapped industrial grunge lair, but that's just the start of the game. A set of computer monitors display video of a house where Jigsaw has sequestered eight moral miscreants, one of whom is Mathews' delinquent son, Daniel (Erik Knudson). The hostages have been exposed to sarin gas and the house is rigged with various torture devices designed to make their search for strategically hidden syringes of the antidote within the prescribed two hours difficult, to say the least. Franky G., Glenn Plummer and Beverley Mitchell (of "7th Heaven") are among the unlucky contestants, as well as Shawnee Smith, who returns as Amanda, the only person to previously survive an encounter with the puzzle master.
The scenario plays out as a sinister reality-TV show or an overly pious science experiment. The film cuts back and forth from the lab rats' pursuit of the serum to the standoff between the cops and Mathews. Based on a script originally called "The Desperate" by Bousman that was rewritten by "Saw" screenwriter Leigh Whannell, who turned it into a sequel, the story is much more focused on an endgame than the original film. There are fewer credibility gaps and there are plenty of reversals to satisfy fans.
Bousman is adept at moving the action along, but reveals his music-video roots with too much rapid-fire imagery at crucial moments and the School-of-David Fincher visuals that marked the first "Saw." Most annoying of all are the quick-cut replay flashbacks used to jog the audience's memory with each revelation, robbing us of the pleasure of actually remembering for ourselves.
The big twist at the climax is a bit of a cheat and sets up another disclosure that blatantly lays the groundwork for "Saw III ... IV ... V," ad infinitum, but for the most part the film succeeds in producing a frightening Halloween weekend experience. The stars of this movie, as with the first, are the disgusting devices dreamed up by Jigsaw (and production designer David Hackl), and as long as there is a market for seeing those in action, the series will live on.
MPAA rating: R for grisly violence and gore, terror, language and drug content
Times guidelines: Torture, endless sharp objects, plenty of blood and spilled brains
Released by Lions Gate Films. Director Darren Lynn Bousman. Executive producers Leigh Whannell, James Wan. Producers Mark Burg, Oren Koules. Gregg Hoffman.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun