- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2005

“Saw II” stands as a modest improvement over last year’s first installment, a low-budget gore-fest that introduced us to a madman named Jigsaw.

By “modest,” we mean the performances are a notch above Acting 101 and the twist ending is sneakier than anything found in such junk horror as “Boogeyman” or “Darkness.”

The old “Saw” followed Jigsaw’s scheme to force two morally flawed people to escape from a torture-laden room. The sequel quadruples the people in jeopardy, but let’s not quibble over the math. For all its blood-for-blood’s-sake slaughter, its pieces fit better than they did the first time around.

The sequel opens with Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) forcing a police informant to die at the hands of a spike-laden death mask. The death draws the attention of a burned out cop named Eric Mason (burned out New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg), a divorced dad who prefers to work behind his desk.

Eric’s squad quickly collars Jigsaw, but the nefarious plotter looks anything but cornered. He leads the police to a series of monitors, where they see eight persons trapped in a room slowly filling with poisonous nerve gas. One of the eight is Eric’s wayward son, who, like the others, has less than two hours to escape. It’s up to Eric to convince Jigsaw to reveal the house’s location, playing right into the killer’s brand of mind games.

“Saw II” neatly stages its two-tiered action, even if both halves suffer serious flaws. Mr. Wahlberg can be a convincing actor, witness his subdued turn in 2000’s indie sleeper “Diamond Men.” Here, he’s forced to wail over his son’s fate while barreling past convoluted tiffs with his fellow officers. The eight Jigsaw victims-to-be aren’t any more compelling, but each is believable enough to let us root for their survival.

None of this would have registered if not for Jigsaw himself, brought to twitchy life by Mr. Bell. It’s a wonderfully creepy performance in a film that leans mightily toward gratuitous violence and jittery camerawork.

What “Saw II” lacks are genuine frights, the kind tailor-made for this time of year. Instead, we’re left with simulated flesh rending — and the hope that Mr. Bell will play a bigger role in the inevitable “Saw III.”

**

TITLE: “Saw II”

RATING: R (grisly violence and gore, coarse language and drug content)

CREDITS: Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. Written by Mr. Bousman and Leigh Whannell.

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

WEB SITE: www.saw2.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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