SAW's self-perpetuating premise is a horror-franchise dream: an ingenious serial killer who stages life-or-death games that require "players" to horribly mutilate themselves or others in order to survive, a conceit limited only by the writer's sick imagination. Unfortunately, that imagination flags early in the first sequel to the grisly 2004 sleeper hit, though the bang-up ending nearly makes it all worthwhile and it opens with a set piece worthy of its predecessor. Michael (Noam Jenkins), a police informant, wakes up in an empty room with what looks like two halves of a spiked, spring-loaded walnut locked around his neck. On a closed-circuit TV, a puppet-man explains his predicament: In about sixty seconds that walnut will snap shut and turn Michael's head into a chunk of Swiss cheese unless he can unlock the contraption. The key has been surgically implanted behind his right eye, and Michael's tormenter has thoughtfully provided a scalpel and a mirror. It doesn't end well, and when serial-killer expert Kerry (Dina Meyer) sees the irregular patch of skin missing from the victim's shoulder, she knows she's looking at the work of Jigsaw, the moralizing sadist who turned torture into a game in SAW. Jigsaw's real target, however, is Michael's contact on the police force, ethically compromised detective Eric Mathews (Donnie Wahlberg), who takes the bait and tracks Jigsaw to his lair in an abandoned steel factory. Unmasked as a wheelchair-bound cancer patient clearly on death's door, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) has devised an especially evil puzzle for Mathews to solve: On a series of TV monitors, Mathews can see his teenage son, Daniel (Erik Knudsen), and six strangers trapped inside a building at an undisclosed location, where they're slowly being poisoned by a nerve agent. A tape recording offers the prisoners vague clues about how they can save themselves, but the doors are booby-trapped and the rooms hold games no one wants to play. Unless Mathews can figure out how to save them, they'll all be dead within two hours. By referencing horror masters Dario Argento and Wes Craven, the film invites comparison to much better movies: Director Darren Lynn Bousman, who cowrote the screenplay with SAW cowriter/star Leigh Whannell, has none of Argento's style or Craven's savagely sardonic of sense of humor. And it skimps on those deliciously nasty set pieces, though it builds to a satisfying climax that offers a natural segue into the inevitable SAW III, even if it confounds the way we traditionally make sense of movies.
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