Friday, October 31, 2008

Saw V

Director: David Hackl
Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Julie Benz, Meagan Good

Running Time: 89 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

No, I didn’t accidentally hit an extra asterisk on my keyboard. The rating you see above is not a typo. But what may be more interesting than my actual thoughts on Saw V is how my attitude going into it had shifted within the past week. I thought the fourth film, which really just amounted to a confusing police procedural was bad, but I wasn’t aware that everyone else thought it was THAT bad. So bad, in fact, that many seem to be personally offended they’ve made another one.

It’s time to put things in perspective. Saw IV was a near miss, which in the case of a fourth installment of a horror series is actually a small miracle. It should have been terrible. All of the Halloween, Friday The 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels were. There was hardly a redeeming quality about them with the best only being enjoyable on a guilty pleasure level. But try telling anyone you’re a fan of the Saw series and it’s a capital offense. Forget that this franchise actually contains a protagonist with complex motivation and a psychologically driven back story. Or the fact that he isn’t just some guy in a mask hacking people up because he had an unhappy childhood or a messed up family.

The more I think about it the more unfair this series’ reputation seems. All of the sudden I found myself really excited to see Saw V and rooting really hard for it to succeed. But I still expected it to be awful. Jigsaw likes to play games but now I’m going to play one and challenge you to see Saw V… then try naming a fifth film in a horror series better than it. I bet you can’t. By telling a more focused, cohesive story and shifting the central focus back to Jigsaw’s legacy this film is a marked improvement over the last one. A lot of that credit should go to a new director who proves he knows this material inside out. Did we really need another Saw? Do we really need sequels for ANY films? That’s beside the point and you could argue all day about it. This works for what it is and fans of the series won’t be disappointed.
After the death of John Kramer A.K.A. Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), forensics expert Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), was revealed at the end of the last film as his successor and the one chosen to continue his "work" and legacy. But before he can he has to tie up some loose ends. Now promoted to Lieutenant Commissioner after his falsely perceived heroics he has to somehow eliminate Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson), the only officer to survive the last trap and who’s now determined to gather evidence that proves Hoffman is the crooked disciple of Jigsaw.

Meanwhile, five strangers wake up in a sewer connected to guillotine blades. A trust fund brat (Greg Bryk), an arrogant reporter (Carlo Rota), a fire inspector (Laura Gordon), a city housing planner (Meagan Good) and a snooty real estate agent (Julie Benz) are the targets of Jigsaw’s latest game, eerily recalling Saw II in that a group of people linked by their immoral life choices must work cooperatively to make it to the end alive. Whereas the last film interspersed flashbacks of John Kramer’s relationship with ex-wife Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell) with the central storyline all the flashbacks here explore the history behind Kramer’s alliance with Hoffman. Jill has a much smaller role this time around but her limited presence introduces an intriguing mystery into the equation that's destined be explored in future films.

Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunston’s script tells three stories and each of them are told in a compelling, straight forward, and intelligible manner, a big step up from their scatterbrained work on the last installment. My biggest worry going into this was that they'd attempt to have Hoffman replace Jigsaw as the focal point of the series. Instead the screenplay did an excellent job of not only giving Hoffman a credible back story but coming up with a very reasonable explanation why he’d be carrying out his dying wishes. Not only that, but without giving too much away this explanation fits perfectly with the theme of the series and what Jigsaw represents as a character.

For the first time since his untimely demise in the third film I actually believed that John Kramer had bigger plans extending far beyond his death that could be carried out despite his passing. His presence was actually felt this time, unlike the last film where we only felt the presence of cops, lawyers, investigators, detectives and a bunch of other people we had no interest in. Jigsaw and his ideology was relegated to an afterthought amidst the mass confusion. Make no mistake about it: We know whose still pulling the strings in this one and it isn’t Hoffman.

The flashbacks are clever in the way they incorporate Hoffman into past events and develop the character. Is it a little silly and are they grasping at straws? Sure, but it makes sense and progresses the story. When I offered suggestions on how to improve the franchise I said that the writers better give Hoffman a hell of a back story if they want to keep him around and Mandylor should be prepared to really deliver. They did and he was. By the end of the film I actually cared what would happen to the guy.

Hoffman has fitting opposition in Scott Patterson’s Agent Strahm. Merely nondescript wallpaper in the previous film, Patterson steps up to the plate in a big way and shows the most fight of any of the cops since Detective Tapp in the original. There’s a moment in the film when Strahm pulls out all the files of the previous Jigsaw victims as we’re taken for a trip down memory lane and it was just the kind of acknowledgment the series needed at this point. The film effectively stages a battle of good vs. evil between the two lawmen on a collision course that can only lead to disaster. If I had to pick it’s probably the weakest of the three stories in the film, but I was shocked how interested I was in it.

The current game involving the five strangers bonded by their moral indiscretions recall the earlier, strongest installments and a few of the actors’ performances really carry the day, especially Dexter’s Julie Benz (nearly unrecognizable in a black wig) and the memorably high-strung Greg Byrk. The traps are back to being simple but brutal, reestablishing the idea of Jigsaw believing himself to be a tester or a therapist rather than a murderer. He creates the illusion of choice for those he knows lack the moral fiber necessary to make one at all. A few of the traps in this film I’d rank alongside the best in the series as far as cleverness and pure entertainment value. And unlike the last film, this is a game you could actually believe Jigsaw was behind.

Fans have long come to expect a huge twist of some sort at the end of every Saw film as the familiar music swells up, although that practice has gone out of style with the past few. I won’t even touch on what happens other than to say it’s more of a clever reversal completely appropriate for this story. I LOVED the last scene, which is just about the best closer since the infamous bathroom in the original. But more impressive is how Hackl films it, creating an indelible final image that isn’t easy to shake.

As surprisingly good as this is it isn’t without problems. There was still a little too much police business for my taste and while the script far more comprehensible this time around it still could have been even tighter and more focused. A lot is going on here, although Hackl does balance it well. I’m also convinced that had John Kramer not had terminal cancer or have his throat slashed by a chainsaw he would have died anyway from the stress of having to set up all those traps, anticipate their outcomes and train all his apprentices. That guy must have had a lot of time on his hands. Nothing more can possibly be said about Tobin Bell’s performance other than this series wouldn’t exist without it. His role has been slightly reduced, but strangely in this film it seemed more important than ever.

I sympathize with those who feel the Saw series has become a parody of itself and agree that in a perfect world it would have ended with the third film. But it didn’t so here we are and this is what we have. Considering we're on the fourth sequel it’s in amazing shape and given that they've chosen to go past what should have been its expiration date the ongoing narrative holds together pretty well. I have no idea why everyone has gone so hard on this but I’m curious what the reaction would have been if it didn’t have “V” in its title. Just because all horror sequels suck is no reason to punish this one. While many complain the films have grown predictable and clich├ęd I’d argue there’s something to be said for consistently executing a successful formula well. Still, I'm with those who feel the series would benefit from trying some different things and stepping out of its comfort zone a little more.
With this installment Saw becomes the highest grossing horror franchise of all-time and no matter how you feel about the films that’s a huge accomplishment. People like watching them, talking about the traps and plot twists and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next in this one. Even those who hate it find themselves oddly compelled to check it out every year like some kind of unhealthy addiction. And when Saw VI comes around next October you know they’ll be first in line. Why? Because this franchise works. It's time to just let go and admit it. At its worst it still runs circles around anything the genre has had because the underlying concept is so strong. It’s tough imagining Halloween without Saw and I’ve finally come to the realization that I don’t want to. I don’t want this series to ever end and it’s looking like I’ll get my wish. So while everyone else compares notes on which film they officially lost interest at, I prefer to look at the glass as being half full…with blood.

1 comment:

JD said...

I knew you would like this more than a lot of people.
I have just been bored with these films for awhile.
After the first one, I lost interest.
Awesome review!!