Saw II delivers the goods, even if there's nothing good about them.
A horror film decidedly not for the squeamish, the film brings back the unrepentantly evil Jigsaw Killer, unmasked near the end of the first film as a dying cancer patient named John (Tobin Bell), determined to take life from those he believes don't deserve it. Among his intended victims this time is Eric (Donnie Wahlberg), a crooked cop who plants evidence to win convictions and, as a sidelight, is a lousy dad.
Naturally, Jigsaw never does things the easy way. To get Eric, he kidnaps eight people - including Eric's son, a budding juvenile delinquent, and poor Amanda (Shawnee Smith), a junkie who's a holdover from the first film - and locks them in a house where they have two hours to get out before dying from a lethal dose of nerve gas. He then challenges Eric and his cop friends to do something about it.
As much as he is a killer (the film makes plenty good on its tagline, "Oh yes, there will be blood"), John is also a game player. He gives all his captives, as well as Eric, clues that could help them escape. Not that they do the doomed all that much good.
Saw II is decidedly, disturbingly and devotedly gruesome. People die ugly, in ways that should make even the most hardened moviegoers cover their eyes.
And yet, there's an honesty to the film that elevates it a cut above standard slasher fare. Maybe it's simply that there's a purposefulness behind Jigsaw's killings; this isn't one of those films where random people - usually the youngest, prettiest and most sexually active first - die at preset intervals. Or maybe it's the horrific inventiveness of Jigsaw's "games," including one involving a pit filled with hypodermic needles that has remained in my head way beyond the point of comfort.
Writer-director Darren Lynn Bousman understands the key to making such grotesque goings-on palatable: It's all in the camerawork. The trick is not to linger on the gruesome scenes too long, to the point where they become cartoonish, or cut away too quickly, which makes the audience - who understand they're not here for a Lassie sequel - feel cheated.
Saw II ends with a twist guaranteed to bring a Saw III. Too bad; it would be nice if, for once, a horror franchise quit while it was ahead. Especially when that head has been battered and bloodied so mercilessly.
(Lions Gate Films)
Starring Tobin Bell, Donnie Wahlberg, Shawnee Smith. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman.
Time 93 minutes.