Cooking up new Rube Goldberg torture contraptions isn't enough to get "Saw II" out of the shadow of its unnerving predecessor. The notion of victims killing themselves while trying to get free from traps set by an evil genius took "Saw" beyond cult hit status, but new pic lets the air out by divulging the startling mystery that concluded the original.

Cooking up new Rube Goldberg torture contraptions isn’t enough to get “Saw II” out of the shadow of its unnerving predecessor. The notion of victims killing themselves while trying to get free from traps set by an evil genius took “Saw” beyond cult hit status to $100 million in worldwide B.O., but new pic lets the air out by divulging the startling mystery that concluded the original. Add this to problematic juggling of police procedural and group-in-distress storylines, and Lions Gate has what looks like a sequel rushed for Halloween. Nonetheless, fans will pile in and come back for more, followed by killer ancillary biz.

Pre-title shocker sets the table, with a police informer (Noam Jenkins) trapped in a grungy room with a venus-flytrap-type metal device locked around his neck and the key to open it lodged behind one of his eye sockets. Nasty results cue that this will be, as pic’s promotion insists, bloodier than before.

Knowing the trademark of master sadist Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), Det. Kerry (Dina Meyer) immediately recognizes his handiwork when she surveys the informant’s horrific demise, and warns her partner Eric (Donnie Wahlberg).

As Kerry and Eric, along with the S.W.A.T. team, track Jigsaw down to his lab in a factory — while stumbling onto one of his patented torture-tripwire devices along the way–they think the case is wrapped up. But they find a new dilemma: On a lab video console, the cops can see that nine people — including Eric’s son Daniel (Erik Knudsen) — are trapped together in a room. The jig is far from up for Jigsaw.

While “Saw” dropped viewers into a puzzling setting that the chained victims gradually made sense of through flashbacks, “Saw II” strides down what appears to be a straight narrative line, but is nevertheless bogged down in various genre traps of its own.

On one end, the interrogation of the cancer-ridden but devious Jigsaw grows surprisingly tiresome as Eric’s rage as a father is played in distressingly one-note fashion by Wahlberg.

On the other, the victims turn out to be a bunch of screamers and hagglers who are barely distinguishable from one another, led by the dull machismo of drug dealer Xavier (Freddy G) and the smarts of Amanda (Shawnee Smith), back for more torture after she escaped a bear-trap in previous pic.

Bell, afforded here a far larger speaking role than in the first pic, suggests in his deep, scratchy voice, bird-like visage and piercing eyes what his version of Hannibal Lecter could be. He even builds up some sympathy for his madman, but this is delivered by way of a time-consuming backstory. What was delectably mysterious in “Saw” is now made literal, and the revelations aren’t terribly intriguing.

Eric’s lesson, it appears, is that he must pay for planting evidence and being a bad dad, but it all seems a tad out of proportion. Under first-timer Darren Lynn Bousman’s direction, the pace slackens during an overlong chase scene, lessening the impact of what was meant to be a stunner of a closing twist. Ending images make no doubt that a new set of “Saws” will be rolling off of the assembly line.

Original key crew is intact, giving pic an entirely consistent look and sound, distinguished by lenser David A. Armstrong’s talent for flat overhead light that eliminates shadows. In a case of what looks like a jumpy trigger finger at the Avid, editor Kevin Greutert’s cutting is frantic to a completely distracting level.

Saw II

Production

A Lions Gate Films release of a Twisted Pictures presentation of a Burg/Koules/Hoffman production. Produced by Gregg Hoffman, Oren Koules, Mark Burg. Executive producers, James Wan, Leigh Whannell, Stacey Testro, Peter Block, Jason Constantine. Co-producers, Daniel Jason Heffner, Greg Copeland. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. Screenplay, Leigh Whannell, Bousman.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), David A. Armstrong; editor, Kevin Greutert; music, Charlie Clouser; music supervisors, Jonathan McHugh, Jonathan Platt, Jonathan Scott Miller; production designer, David Hackl ; art director, Michele Brady; set decorator, Liesl Deslauriers; costume designer, Alex Kavanaugh; makeup, Sarah Fairbairn; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Rick Penn; supervising sound editor, Mark Gingras; visual effects supervisor, Bret Culp; special effects supervisor, Tim Good; visual effects, Core Digital Pictures; stunt coordinator, Alison Reid; assistant director, Elizabeth Scherberger; second unit director, Greg "Fellini" Copeland; second unit camera, Brian Gedge; casting, Amy Lippens. Reviewed at Lions Gate Films screening room, Santa Monica, Oct. 18, 2004. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Jigsaw/John - Tobin Bell Amanda - Shawnee Smith Eric Matthews - Donnie Wahlberg Daniel Matthews - Erik Knudsen Xavier - Franky G Jonas - Glenn Plummer Laura - Beverley Mitchell Kerry - Dina Meyer Addison - Emmanuelle Vaugier
With: Timothy Burd, Lyriq Bent, Noam Jenkins, Tony Nappo.

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