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Entries in Saw 3D [2010] (1)

Wednesday
Nov032010

Saw 3D (2010)

Game Over (and over and over and over...)

Saw VII is the first movie of the franchise in which the machinations of the traps are more memorable than those of the plot.  As an unabashed fan of this series, I'm sad to see it end on such a spectacularly weak note.

The problem started in Saw IV, when we found out that John Kramer (Tobin Bell), the ingenious pseudo-serial-killer Jigsaw, had actually died at the end of part three—along with his accomplice, Amanda (Shawnee Smith).  Who would step in to take their places as the engineers of complicated death devices meant to test the will of morally bankrupt citizens?  The film’s closing minutes answered this in a unique way, by revealing the story to be a paraquel to the previous one; this allowed Jigsaw to remain the villain of Saw IV, with the added twist of a new recruit named Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor).

Hoffman was the franchise’s death knell.  It was easy to believe that John Kramer was capable of constructing and executing his dark vision, but Hoffman always came off as a reluctant, petty thug who somehow managed to follow instructions.  Saw V was little more than an exercise in covering tracks, and it committed the series’ biggest sin by killing off the one good cop who might’ve caught Hoffman and put the audience out of its collective misery.

Saw V also brought Kramer’s ex-wife Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell) to the foreground as a possible co-conspirator.  This was at first a charming idea, but it never went anywhere: we eventually learned (in the next film, if I recall) that she was just another Jigsaw apprentice.  The second-through-fourth movies shrouded her in mystery; by Saw VI, she might as well have been wearing a Jason mask.

Saw VI literally brought new life to Jigsaw, with Kramer popping up in flashbacks to tell the story of the insurance executive who denied him cancer treatments.  The film moonlighted as a universal health care polemic and also gave Tobin Bell more screen time than he’d had in years; this made Hoffman’s presence that much more insignificant and unwelcome—and also made for a pretty strong movie.  It gave me hope for Saw VII—which, until the diminishing returns of parts four and five, had been slated as the third-to-last film in a nine-picture (!) arc.

I hope to God that Saw 3D is the last installment.  It’s clear that writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan have lost any clue as to what made the first few movies so strong, and have been coasting on fumes for about three years (Saw VI being a delightful fluke).  The movie opens on a high note, with Hoffman/Jigsaw’s first public execution: spectators at a mall witness a girl get sawed in half as her two boyfriends squabble over their loyalties.  It’s a weird, promising beginning; sadly, it only leads to another private man-in-a-maze game that takes up the rest of the movie’s ninety minutes.

The subject of Saw 3D’s game is Bobby (Sean Patrick Flanery), a successful motivational speaker who wrote a book describing how he survived one of Jigsaw’s traps and turned his life around.  The catch is that he’s a fraud.  He’s kidnapped and drugged, and wakes up in an abandoned asylum, where he must follow clues and human breadcrumbs to rescue his wife.  Along the way, he encounters his publicist, lawyer, and agent—all wired to participate in games based on “See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil”.

These traps are nasty.  In one, Bobby must use a hook and fishing line to drag a key out of his publicist’s stomach through her mouth; if she screams, a group of spikes will penetrate her throat.  Another sees Bobby hoisting two bars on his shoulders while being stabbed in the ribs; if he can hold the bars up for thirty seconds, his lawyer will be spared from being impaled through the eyes and mouth.  There are other traps in the movie, some unrelated to Bobby’s journey, and they’re equally ridiculous and fun (yes, I think it’s fun to see people mutilated in a silly horror movie; sue me).

What holds Saw 3D back is the fact that the traps are the only new element in the story.  We’ve seen the maze before; we’ve seen the clueless white detective and his alternating-race partner hot on the trail of Jigsaw/Hoffman; we’ve seen Hoffman make threatening videos, looking like he’s reading cue cards with a hangover; we’ve seen the teary self-actualization of the main player just before his fate is sealed.  The only variation, and it’s a bad one, is that in the other movies, the audience would sometimes believe that one of the trapped victims would make it out alive; every minor player in Saw 3D dies (the film even manages to kill suspense).

There’s just nothing worth holding on to here, and that includes the re-appearance of Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes).  He was the series’ first player, last seen crawling out of a dungeon after having sawed his own leg out of a shackle; because the dungeon had been sealed at the end, it was assumed that Gordon was left to die.  Well, he’s back and blander than ever.  Springing up in a Jigsaw survivor’s support group to harangue Bobby for his exploitation of a tragedy, we’re led to believe that he’ll be a major player; in truth, he’s nothing more than a totem meant to perk up the audience for a couple of minutes before plunging them into a Mobius strip of Saw’s greatest hits.

The earlier movies had great twist endings; the writers really went for Usual Suspects-level mind-fucks in parts one through four.  In Saw 3D, we learn that Dr. Gordon had been helping Jigsaw set up his traps ever since part two (or thereabouts), and that he’s now taken over the mantle of Jigsaw.  Could there be a more obvious, insulting revelation?  The entire franchise is now so in-bred that the direct-to-DVD follow-up will likely reveal that the hospital janitor, junkyard night watchman, and President Obama were also apprentices with advanced degrees in mutilation physics.

I hate to say it, but the thing that engaged my brain the most during this movie was trying to figure out whether or not Bobby was actually played by Sean Patrick Flannery.  During his first few scenes, I couldn’t tell if it was the same actor from The Boondock Saints or some unknown who’d undergone really shitty plastic surgery to look like him.  It was Flannery, all right, using none of the charms that made him somewhat famous, and looking like someone had replaced the lower half of his face with a flesh colored water balloon that had just about reached capacity.

Is it too much to ask that filmmakers reward loyal fans’ seven years of dedication with more than two tired callbacks to the once-ominous declaration of “Game Over”?  Maybe it’s the pressure of having to churn out one of these movies each year, but the fun has just been sucked right out of Saw.  I’d love to dangle Melton and Dunstan over a pit of whirling lawnmower blades and force them to come up with something original—or at least compelling.

Actually, that’s not true.  Doing so would imply that I care about what happens next.