Silly, gratuitous, and nonsensical as they are, the Saw movies may have something to them after all. Much like The Three, the serial-killer film scripted by "Donald Kaufman" in Adaptation, they're written in full knowledge of all their bone-collecting, skin-stitching, Seven Deadly Sins-reckoning predecessors, yet the psychology has been completely stripped away, leaving only the gimmicks behind. To some extent, the Saw franchise may be the B-movie answer to classier fare like The Silence Of The Lambs and Se7en—both Saw and the new Saw II reveal their heady moral and thematic agendas as pseudo-sophisticated window dressing for the grisly contraptions they actually are. Stripped down to the barest genre essentials, Saw is a spring-loaded killing machine, packed with sadistic little deathtraps and ludicrous macabre twists, and its quickie sequel offers more of the same, which should again appease viewers who enjoy being jerked around.
In a novel reversal on the original, evil puppetmaster Tobin Bell (nicknamed "Jigsaw" because he cuts puzzle pieces out of his victims' skin) pulls back the curtain and spends the entire movie in plain sight, but he still holds all the cards. Though not quite as tortured as Danny Glover's madman-in-the-attic in Saw, cop Donnie Wahlberg has reason for stress when he discovers that Bell has abducted his son (along with about half a dozen others), and is holding them in a booby-trapped house. Through security monitors mounted in every room, Wahlberg and his team can only watch helplessly as the hostages struggle to free themselves within the two hours before their bodies implode from the nerve gas being pumped through the vents. But Bell relishes his role as dungeonmaster, so he offers a way out in the form of a game: If the hostages can figure out the combination to the safe in the middle of the room, they'll find the antidote inside.
As in Saw, the solutions are often just as bad as the problem: Sure, you can unlock that spiked steel trap mounted on your head, but first you have to find the key, which is planted behind your eye socket. (Here's a scalpel. Enjoy.) Bell claims he never kills anybody and that his victims are masters of their own fate, but that's a little like a schoolyard bully grabbing a weakling's arm and doing the "stop hitting yourself" routine. Co-writer Leigh Whannell, the sole creative holdover from the original, knows well enough not to mess with success, and he perpetuates Saw's sick, arbitrary formula without fail. The good news for moviegoers is that there's a way to enjoy Saw II: Simply grab the scalpel from under the chair, carve a hole in your forehead, and remove your frontal lobe.