While the first Saw film introduced a new concept to horror of a vigilante killer forcing people to cherish their lives, Saw II tried to come up with a formula for the rest of the franchise. In Saw II a group of people who are locked in decrepit house need to work together to solve the game and save their lives.
But Saw II also represents a shift in the creative minds behind the series. James Wan left what he had created to fellow filmmaker Leigh Whannell and new director Darren Lynn Bousman. Leigh Whannell tried to replicate the success of the first Saw by partnering with Bousman to write the script for Saw II. But their partnership wouldn’t measure up to the dynamic duo Whannell and Wan had been, and the result was a weak script that detracts from the potential power of the film.
Despite the combined efforts of Whannell and Bousman, Saw II inevitably falls short because it lacks compelling characters to maintain the audience’s interest. This is especially true of the victims. In the first Saw our attention was focused on Dr. Gordon and Alex with peripheral focus on Tapp, his partner and Dr. Gordon’s family. Our closeness to the characters made their struggles poignantly personal, while in Saw II there are eight victims, far too many to many to offer any meaningful coverage to just one.
The result is a disassociation from these characters on the part of the audience. This lack of interest (once again) shifts the focus of the audience onto the traps instead of the moral lessons they teach. This is made painfully clear with the scalpel snap trap Addison succumbs to. She doesn’t even listen to Jigsaw’s tape, so the potential lesson of her test is lost as viewers watch her bleed to death.
The uninteresting victims of SAW II are rivaled only by the bland characterization of the police officers trying to save them. Detective Matthews is a weak pantomime of a tortured cop and frustrated father, to the point where the scenes with his delinquent son feel awkward and forced. Detective Kerry and SWAT leader Rigg also turn in mediocre performances that strain viewer empathy.
In addition to its major flaws in characterization, Saw II also struggles with one of the filmic trademarks of the Saw series. The original Saw employs unique transitions between scenes that blur place and time. An example is the move from the interrogation room where Amanda is being questioned to the basement where Gordon and Alex are being held captive. The camera pans downward in a fluid motion and in the space of a few seconds the audience is suddenly transported to a new place.
The transitions in Saw II attempt to reproduce this feat, but instead of moving the audience’s gaze, they follow characters as they step from one environment into another. This is seen when Detective Matthews leaves his apartment to visit the primary crime scene. The overall feel of these cuts is jarring rather than smooth and much like Rob Zombie doing John Carpenter’s Halloween, it shows that Bousman is struggling with elements of Saw that aren’t his own.
The final weakness of Saw II is it’s transformation of Tobin Bell from an unknown bogey man into a costumed super villain. The whole affair borders on camp, as Jigsaw assures the distraught Detective Matthews, “you will find your son in a safe and secure state.” Jigsaw is true to his word, as Matthew’s son is found in an actual safe in Jigsaw’s workshop at the film’s end, but the puns don’t stop there.
Jigsaw tells his victims they all know the combination to the safe containing the antidote that will save them and “the numbers are in the back of [their] mind.” As it turns out, the numbers to the combination are written on the back of everyone’s neck.
Despite these flaws, Saw II grossed almost forty million more than Saw did in the U.S. alone, and it looked like Jigsaw’s promise of blood was being eagerly lapped up by an audience hungry for more.
Up Next: Saw III: Jumping the Shark