At least you can’t really say that Saw II is “more of the same.” Oh, sure, there are plot twists aplenty and numerous traps and puzzles to be figured out, but the basic story of Saw II differs from its predecessor. It does enough to make itself feel fresh, just like the first film did enough to differentiate itself from the rest of the horror genre. In hindsight the film might not necessarily “work,” but it definitely does in the moment, and that’s really all that matters.
There are two stories at work in the sequel to the implausibly successful Saw. The first involves a police officer, Eric (Donnie Wahlberg), in a battle of wits against the “serial killer,” Jigsaw (Tobin Bell). Surprisingly, the man behind the elaborate death traps of the first film gets put into police custody early on in Saw II, although he has a trick up his sleeve: he has captured a group of people, put them in a home which contains poisonous gas, and gave them clues as to how to find antidotes in order to live through the ordeal. If they don’t solve the puzzle in two hours, they will die. Eric has a son, Daniel (Erik Knudsen), who is trapped in the house.
The focus on these people is what takes up our second story. We cut back and forth between this diverse group of individuals and their attempts to not die and the one-on-one “discussion” between Jigsaw and Eric. Individually, both of these segments work. Eric has the emotion and Jigsaw has the brains, making the first part compelling, and the puzzles that Jigsaw uses to teach the other characters lessons could easily be movies unto themselves, simply because of how creative they are.
By joining them, not only do we add emotional resonance to the second story because of the first one, there’s also a greater sense of urgency, a lot more intrigue to the wordplay, and the potential to add another twist into the mix, which Saw II uses to great effect. I found the breaks of straight tension given by the Eric-Jigsaw portions to benefit the one about the people trapped in the house.
It was nice to see more of Jigsaw in this film. In Saw, we mostly Saw him from behind — his identity was being saved for a twist — and we learned little about him. Saw II switches things up by having him confront us and give us long monologues in which he tells us exactly why he does what he does. We get his back story, his character motivation, and a creepy performance by Tobin Bell. This doesn’t change the character from the earlier film; it fleshes him out and makes him even more sinister.
I should mention here that if you didn’t like the small, gruesome bits of gore in Saw that you should stop thinking about seeing the sequel now. There is more gore, and there are more situations which will force you to look away from the screen. Some points in the film aren’t necessarily gory, but they’ll make you cringe, shake, or make you feel the need to vomit nonetheless. There are a lot of points when I had wonder whether or not living would be worth being put through such a punishment.
If there’s one thing Saw II is exceptionally good at, it’s making you think about what you would do given a certain situation. The film makes you continually question whether you’d be able to do something in order to survive, or if it would even be worth it. Would you jump into a pit of bloody needles in an attempt to find a key, and you only have a couple of minutes to find it? The first film did this, too, but with more people come more traps and more opportunities to put yourself to the (hypothetical) test.
More characters does pose a problem for the film. The first film didn’t have well-written characters, and with more of them this issue is compounded and much more noticeable. Only the Jigsaw Killer has anything more than a single dimension, while most of the victims get a sole trait with which they are defined. Returning from the last movie is Amanda (Shawnee Smith), someone you might recall was a survivor of one of Jigsaw’s puzzles and here is put through round #2. What an unlucky person.
Saw II, like its predecessor, also tries to be too clever at times, throwing twists upon twists at the viewer. Some of them are extremely effective, while others require a lot of stretching to find believable. And if you have to think about them that much, it’s tough to call them effective, even in the moment. Most of the film will keep you on your toes, but steam begins to be let out of the engine by the time it comes to a conclusion, in large part thanks to the chain of events becoming a bit too much to handle.
Saw II might not be the breath of fresh air that Saw was, but it does enough differently from the first installment, as well as being extremely enjoyable while it’s playing, that it’s well worth your time. The two separate storylines work in tandem with one another to become something very effective, the puzzles and traps are just as creative as they were in the previous film, and the further exploration of its villain made the character more interesting. While it suffers from poor characters and an attempt at being too clever, I did enjoy Saw II and I recommend it to those of you who don’t get turned away from squeamish material.