Saw II

Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

Lions Gate Films

2 1/2 STARS

When awaiting a sequel to a movie that thrived on a gritty, underground image, fans often fear artistic changes could lead to the dilution of the original film’s unique charm. Fans of “Saw”—last year’s Halloween hit—can breathe a sigh of relief: “Saw II” does not fall victim to the curse of the horror movie sequel. This is another round of disturbingly gruesome imagery surpassed in horror only by the cast’s absurdly bad acting.

In the movie that left adults cringing and young males drooling, “Saw” introduced the world to the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell), a terminal cancer patient who places his morally aberrant victims in shocking, deadly situations for which extreme measures are needed to survive. Jigsaw intends to make society value the sanctity of life, believing those who live will have a greater appreciation for what they were wasting away. Amanda (Shawnee Smith, who reprises her role in the sequel), the former drug addict who once survived Jigsaw’s maniacal scheme, credits him with motivating her to address her problem.

The sequel stars Donnie Wahlberg (“The Sixth Sense” and kin of Marky Mark) as Detective Eric Mason, a down-and-out cop struggling with severe disillusionment at work and the estrangement of his son Daniel (Erik Knudsen). Initially reluctant to get involved in a murder case of Jigsaw’s, Mason is left with no alternative when he realizes his son is among the potential victims.

Jigsaw has trapped Daniel—and seven others—in an abandoned house where the doors will be unlocked in three hours. Unfortunately for those kidnapped, they have all been exposed to a deadly nerve agent that will kill them within two hours. The only hope of survival is to find the antidotes scattered throughout the booby-trapped house.

Between the creation of a hauntingly suspenseful aura, the continuation of “Saw”’s novel premise and the unfolding of countless twists and turns, “Saw II” is the type of movie that will have the average moviegoer intrigued until the very end, even though the build is far from perfect. The shock value of the film—in the first scene, a man’s survival is contingent upon his slicing into his own eye (a cutting homage to “Un Chien Andalou”)—will entertain viewers and enable them to overlook the script’s limitations.

Much of the plot’s complexities and intrigue are dropped in the interest of an easy conclusion. Additionally, the script gives little insight into the motivation behind the characters’ actions and emotions. Viewers first meet the eight victims as stock characters, and by the end of the film, few have made any real impression. Developing a rapport with the shallow Detective Mason is no easier, ultimately hurting the audience’s appreciation for his struggle.

Particularly disappointing is the intimate look at the inner workings of Jigsaw. Although Tobin Bell’s performance is the closest to respectable in the film, he ultimately fails to portray one of those “cool” villains (Hannibal Lecter, for instance) that are inherently bad, yet charismatic. Jigsaw’s explanation of his crimes fails to convince that the character’s intent—to prove the value of life by forcing people to make extremely painful sacrifices to avoid death—is noble.

The rest of the acting is downright abominable, with virtually all victims in the house (“7th Heaven”’s Beverley Mitchell by far the worst) providing shallow and unrealistic performances that are not even good by horror flick standards.

“Saw II” only superficially enhances the framework of the original, making one question the need to continue the story. If fans are looking for an exciting, suspenseful gorefest that possesses entertainment on par with the original, then they should by all means see the film. But, if they are anticipating something that complicates one of the best horror premises in years, they will be let down by “Saw II.”