Saw II (2005)
The first Saw was made largely to get James Wan and Leigh Whannell's feet in the door in Hollywood. Just out of film school, they figured out how to make a horror film with limited budget and limited locations and, through connections, got a few named stars to be in it. At the time they thought it would do the box office of most horror films, which means turning a profit but not not turning them into instant millionaires.
Saw, however, proceeded to do just that. The quality of the movie, and the word of mouth it generated, resulted in unforeseen worldwide box office returns. As usual when this happens the next question that came up was what to do next. Since it was made to be a standalone film, with a big reveal at the end and everything wrapped up for the characters involved, there had never been any thought on making this into a franchise.
Luckily for Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures there was Darren Lynn Bousman. He had been trying to get a script he wrote made into a movie for years. It was repeatedly rejected for being too violent and, as he was still passing it around when Saw came out, derided as being too close to that concept. That ended up being a blessing in disguise as, with Leigh Whannell's help, Bousman as able tweak his script so that it provided a continuation of the Saw story. It also allowed him to make his directorial debut.
The end of Saw revealed that Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) was a cancer patient who, as he was facing his last days, decided to put people through tests to make them appreciate life. Though supposedly random the different characters revealed to have connections to one another as well as to Jigsaw himself. One of those people was Amanda (Shawnee Smith), a former junkie who survives Jigsaw's "reverse bear-trap" game, only to find herself once again a participant in one of his projects - this time locked in a house with Xavier (Franky G), Jonas (Glenn Plummer), Obi (Timothy Burd), Addison (Emmanuelle Vaugier), Laura (Beverly Mitchell) and Daniel (Erik Knudsen). The last is the son of a disgraced police officer named Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) who is the target of one of Jigsaw's games.
The house itself is slowly being filled with a nerve agent that will kill those within unless they make it to syringes filled with antidote that Jigsaw has hidden in various traps and puzzles. Jigsaw himself is captured by the police and reveals his motivations to Matthews while the inhabitants of the home begin to fight amongst each other. Convinced that he must rescue his son himself Matthews takes action, but it may be too little too late.
There is a lot more going on this second time around. Many of the following films (the next two would be directed by Bousman as well) would begin to follow this pattern of groups of people in one location rather than Kramer manipulating everything with different participants to do his work for him. This one also comes with a twist at the end - one that seems a bit more plausible than the end of the first one - and ties everything together. We also get a little bit more of Jigsaw, or John Kramer's, reasoning, although not all of it. That is both because of Matthews's impatience and because certain elements that would show up in the later film hadn't been quite thought out yet.
Tobin Bell makes an excellent villain, spilling his justifications in a calm and precise manner, although how much John believes his own philosophy is questionable. The cast that is in the house is pretty solid, especially the rivalry between Xavier and Jonas, and the traps are not torture devices, but rather quite inventive - considering that all of them have workarounds that the characters ignore. Many of the later Saw movies resemble Cube in a number of ways, and this is pretty much where that pattern starts. Dina Meyer is back from the first and with a larger role while we also get our first introduction to Sgt. Griggs (Lyriq Bent), who would become more central as the series went on.
The weak link this time around, unfortunately, is Donnie Wahlberg. His portrayal of Detective Matthews is largely one-note, and even that note seems to be phoned in. Cary Elwes at least put some effort into playing Dr. Gordon in the first movie, and Donnie is nowhere near the caliber of actor of his brother Mark, much less Elwes. It is obvious he was doing it for money and didn't want to be there.
The other problem with the film is Bousman's directing. He settles down once Jigsaw is found in his lair, but the directing and particularly the editing is dizzying and confusing early on. It is hard to tell what is going on, which was probably part of the point, but it also looks like an early 2000s music video. The nu metal garbage from Marilyn Manson and Mudvayne that was part of the soundtrack, firmly rooting the movie in the early 2000s, doesn't help.
Once the movie gets going, however, it reaches the same levels of tension as its predecessor, and it has enough cleverness to it so that it makes the audience want to see what will happen next. At this point the ending did set it up for a franchise, including addressing the idea of what was going to happen after Kramer's inevitable death at some point down the road. I also liked how it refocused the bad guy from Kramer to Xavier for a good part of the movie, as everything that happens in the house is largely due to his actions rather than Jigsaw's. Where Saw was a good standalone film, Saw II is an excellent start for the story that was to unfold over the next few films.
Saw II (2005)
Time: 93 minutes
Starring: Donnie Wahlberg, Tobin Bell, Erik Knudsen, Shawnee Smith, Franky G, Dina Meyer
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman