[Screen It]

(2005) (Donnie Wahlberg, Shawnee Smith) (R)

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Horror: A number of people try to make their way out of a potentially lethal, booby-trapped house as a cop deals with the deranged perpetrator and tries to figure out where the victims are located.
Eric Matthews (DONNIE WAHLBERG) is a decorated cop who's given up the street beat for a desk job but must contend with his failed marriage and estranged relationship with his son Daniel (ERIK KNUDSEN) who's now getting into trouble of his own. But Eric has bigger fish to fry when he's called to a homicide scene by Kerry (DINA MEYER), a police detective who's continuing her work investigating the devious, homicidal spree left in the wake of a killer dubbed Jigsaw.

It seems that the killer has left a message for Eric who's suddenly drawn into the investigation when he and Kerry learn that Jigsaw is back to his old tricks again. This time he has Daniel as one of his potential victims trapped inside a house with a bunch of strangers. They learn via audiotape that if they want to survive their booby-trapped environs -- before a slowly vented nerve gas kills them in two hours -- they must figure out various abstract clues about themselves and the house in order to get out.

One of the victims, former addict Amanda (SHAWNEE SMITH) has first-hand experience with this situation as she was a previous victim of Jigsaw's morality experience who managed to prove she had the survival instinct the killer seems to be testing. Unfortunately for Gus (TONY NAPPO), he fails that and becomes the first victim, thus causing muscle-bound drug dealer Xavier (FRANKY G.) to take charge, much to the chagrin of fellow former convicts Jonas (GLENN PLUMMER) and Addison (EMMANUELLE VAUGIER). Meanwhile, mousy Laura (BEVERLEY MITCHELL) can't handle the predicament in which she finds herself, unlike Obi (TIMOTHY BURD) who may know a thing or two about what's occurring.

Eric and Kerry quickly apprehend the killer (TOBIN BELL) in his lair, but he wants to play a twisted game with Eric, stating that if he plays along, he can save his son. With time running out, Eric tries to figure out the killer's mindset and tricks, all as the potential victims race against the clock, the progressively worsening effects of the nerve agent, and some of them turning against the others.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
Probably unbeknownst to most everyday moviegoers, movie studios like to send all sorts of promotional knickknacks and other such items to reviewers in hopes of drawing attention to their latest releases. Some are fun, others are funny and the rest are a waste of time and materials, especially if their intent is to somehow influence us to give a film a better grade.

They do have an effect, however, on our local mailman and those in his post office who always try to guess what film the next packaged knickknack might be associated with, particularly if said items gives off some sort of audible clue. Thus, I have to wonder what they thought if they accidentally activated a key chain I received this week that then spouted the ominous sounding "Oh yes, there will be blood."

If they were fans of the grisly, Rube Goldberg inspired "Saw" from 2004, they might have guessed it would be the imaginatively entitled "Saw II." In that sequel, the returning killer from the first film is heard making the above quote and you know what -- he's right. Of course, that shouldn't come as a surprise in that the first film was a bloody mess (in more ways than one) or that those helming sequels -- be they the returning director or someone new brought in to take over -- almost always follow the oft-misguided belief that "more is better."

In this case, that mantra means further blood, gore and heightened sadism standing in for "entertainment" as the "what would you do" booby-traps and potential victims are multiplied here over what was present the first time around. What's missing, however, is the novelty and mystery that the original film managed to convey. That involved two men trapped in a grungy public bathroom with the clock counting down toward their pending fate should they be unable to figure out the abstract clues that could lead to their release.

The big issues with the first film were some gargantuan plot holes and glaring lapses in logic that spoiled the "fun" -- if that's what you'd like to call it -- and caused viewers to be taken out of the moment. Accordingly, returning screenwriter Leigh Whannell (who also starred in the first film) and new co-writer/director Darren Lynn Bousman (making his feature debut) have pretty much ironed out those problems, resulting in a rather straightforward thriller.

Nonetheless, it's still just an exercise in sadism and an over-directed and over-edited one at that. With a background in commercials and music videos, Bousman joins a growing list of young (and some veteran) filmmakers who seem to think that short clips, quick cuts and such make for good and/or imaginative filmmaking.

While such an approach certainly ensures that film editors will never be looking for work, it doesn't do much for the resultant film or in engaging viewers -- at least those who learned to appreciate movies long before music videos changed filmmaking for the worse -- who can see right through such cinematic subterfuge.

The bigger problem, however, which seems to be running rampant through most contemporary horror films, is the filmmakers' inability to get us to care about the characters. I understand that most of the potential victims here -- such as those played by Franky G., Glenn Plummer and Shawnee Smith -- are purposefully unsavory or otherwise uninteresting characters of one form or another who are facing their comeuppance. I also realize that some viewers will react to the elaborate if sadistic traps in an instinctually primitive reaction. Yet, that doesn't make for compelling storytelling, and the fact is we simply don't care about those about to be offed.

The same holds true for the subplot -- lifted in part from the first film -- where a cop tries to solve the mystery before it's too late. As embodied by Donnie Wahlberg (the big brother to Marky Mark who now sounds and even looks more like his bro), the cop is yet another unlikable character and thus we similarly don't care about him accomplishing his goal.

The one sort of unsavory character that moviegoers seem to like, however, are diabolical madmen, killers and such, and in that aspect the film does not disappoint. Barely around in the first film except in spirit, by voice and, okay, lying around for most of the film (in what was the biggest credibility issue for yours truly), Jigsaw -- a.k.a. Tobin Bell gets a much meatier part this time around. Not only does the hyper direction slow down to normal speed whenever his character's on camera -- which is a godsend on its own -- but Bell also does a decent job playing the creepy madman with a God-like complex.

Of course, his survival instinct and morality based tests still feel half-baked -- just like the first time around and despite how elaborate they might be this time -- compared to what similarly occurred in the far superior "Seven." That said, fans of the first film might not mind, especially when this one finally leads back to the first setting and yet another "twist."

For everyone else, however, the slightly interesting thematic elements of playing God and how far people will go to save their own hides are overshadowed by frenetic direction and editing, and all of the nearly relentless sadism. At one point, the perpetrator states that his victims are located in the "Last House on the Left." Considering that this film shares the same sort of unsavory pain and violence found in that Wes Craven film of the same name, that doesn't come as a surprise. "Saw II" rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 24, 2005/ Posted October 28, 2005

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