Taking a considerable risk with their Lionsgate cash cow, the makers of “Saw V” have decided to tone down the ongoing saga’s torture horror for a generally conventional cat-and-mouse detective movie. Make no mistake: Blood flows, but largely at the beginning and the end, with a surprisingly plodding middle taking up most of the space. Tobin Bell fans, concerned that their favorite horror star is getting nudged aside, should lay their worries to rest, and will show up opening weekend to keep the torture biz going through at least early November.
Sticking to formula, the opening setpiece involves another torture device supposedly set by Jigsaw (Bell), in which Seth (Joris Jarsky), later revealed to have been a murderer, is sliced to death by a steadily falling pendulum. Action proper begins, per usual, around the moment of the previous pic’s closing scene, which has Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) leaving the operating room where Jigsaw has died — and ends up in yet another Jigsaw trap, from which Strahm escapes ingeniously, if rather painfully.
Jigsaw’s always suspicious-looking wife Jill (Betsy Russell, acting strange as always in this curious part) receives a mysterious package held at the office of Jigsaw’s lawyer. The contents, never revealed this time, surely hold something in store for “Saw VI.” Here, the package is just a distraction from the main event: the recovering Strahm’s growing doubts about Det. Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), which leads to his own personal investigation of Hoffman’s past.
If “Saw IV” relied on flashbacks, the fifth edition (also written by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan) takes it several degrees further, revealing Hoffman’s past involvement with Jigsaw. The lengthy midsection’s scenes between the cop and the moralistic, mad engineer allow Bell some of his most considerable screen time in any recent “Saw” edition, effectively turning this part of the film into a protracted explanation of the traps hatched in the second through fourth entries.
This, combined with Strahm’s pursuit of Hoffman — who is always one step ahead, as demonstrated by the grisly conclusion — shift pic’s approach from horror into policier, which may not be what “Saw” fans are looking for. As a sign that first-time director David Hackl and the writers are less inclined to go gory, the periodic traps set for five new victims, all linked by a rotten real-estate deal, are neither as terrifying nor as yucky as in the earlier films. The only real horror in these scenes, in fact, is the jaw-droppingly bad acting on display.
Mandylor, who here resembles Alec Baldwin’s evil twin, shows signs of being ready to take over the reins as “Saw’s” successor to Jigsaw, while Patterson’s snooping character is forced to talk out loud to himself to explain things to the audience. As Strahm’s FBI boss, Mark Rolston looks every bit the upright federal official.
Production aspects are kept to the strict design codes of every “Saw,” which means as dark, ghoulish and medieval as possible. Only in some early daylight sequences does the film look visually cheap.