It’s become an annual tradition for me to review a Saw film, and the ritual has resided somewhere between the sheer joy of bloodlust and the agony of feeling like the theater seat I was in came with leather straps and a reverse bear trap. Fortunately, I began with Saw V – the absolute worst film in the series – so the road was uphill from there toward the sweet freedom of better quality.

Next came Saw VI, an uptick in the series and a return to the thoughtfulness that made the original idea so fresh and complex. Now, just like my responsibility as sole Saw reviewer for this site has been somewhere in the middle of pleasure and pain, Saw 3D (which was magically shown in 2D) also lives somewhere in between quality and crap.

Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) is long gone, and his legacy of killing through inventive traps is being carried on by his true successor, a former detective with a tilt toward aggression. Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) is in the middle of a battle with Jigsaw’s widow (Betsy Russell) who left him disfigured in their last match up. He’s also being hunted by the authorities, and has the weight of continuing the games Jigaw set up thrust upon his shoulders.

That new game involves a self-help maestro named Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flanery) who has capitalized on a book tour based on his survival of one of the traps. Unfortunately, Bobby has some secrets, and those secrets are going to see him waking up in a rusty cage.

The bold success of the franchise died alongside Jigsaw. It was his character that was most compelling, and it was his traps that were ruthlessly clever enough to contain an illustrative point about the lives we live and what we’ll do to protect them from being shuffled off the mortal coil. This film, like the others after his death, suffers greatly from that loss, but the production almost does its best to rise above the deficit.

The featured game in this film is almost as top notch as the games from 3 (where a grieving father has to find a way to forgive those involved in the vehicular slaughter of his daughter) and from the last installment (where an insurance CEO has to examine his decision-making process about who lives or dies in real time).

The traps are inventive and have at least a modicum of symbolism as to the sins of each sinner. Still, it seems like director Kevin Greutert and screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton are always on the one-yard line of connecting the dots. The opening game is done out in the open, begging to be scene by onlookers (as if taunting the audience that came to see the carnival of blood), but it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, and the idea there is never brought to any fruition. It’s just there because they needed a shocking opening. Sadly, a brilliant concept there died (with a whimper and not a buzz saw) on the vine.

However, the bulk of the traps are bold and imbued with enough meaning to elevate the killing. That’s what we come to the big game for in the first place, and that focus is the saving grace of this film. The detective story is the detective story, and Chad Donella (who plays lead detective Gibson) is a supporting actor that deserves way more work, but it’s almost dull because of how meaningless it is. Hoffman has become a standard slasher in place of the chess player that Jigsaw was, and that’s a losing proposition. The insight and moral exactitude is gone, and chasing after some brute who happens to be good at following instructions doesn’t make for a quality police procedural.

On an interesting note, though, Costas Mandylor manages to pull out a not-that-excruciating acting turn here, which is a reprieve from his presence in earlier films.

Also, the return of Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) is a welcome one that works really well (especially because his character isn’t from London, America this time around). Plus, the center piece scene that involves self-helper Dagen using a Jigsaw Survivors meeting as fodder for his publicity tour, contains some differing view points on the effects the challenge had on those that lived. It’s a semi-self aware moment, it calls foul on the original ethical conceit, and it becomes a micro-discussion on ethics and psychology. Some of the spirit of the original has made it all the way to the seventh film.

The other major player in the film is the gore, and the practical effects are brutal and unflinching in their veracity. It’s gore done at the apex of its ability. The human body is put through the wringer in gruesome and curious ways with a keener eye than previous installments. There’s more here than just gore, but there’s nothing wrong with seeing a gallon of the red stuff splattered wantonly. Saw 3D lets the flesh fly with disregard.

Over all, it’s a satisfying entry, but not nearly the explosive conclusion that the original concept deserves. In a way, part of me would be sad to see the industrial door slammed on my yearly ritual, but the series hasn’t retained its ingenuity. Saw 3D is a good movie that doesn’t live up to the promise of Jigsaw’s potential (although part of the film hints at a different version of events that would have been Hoffman-less and much, much better), but that’s not such a bad thing. It still rises above the mindless realm of horror, and I have to admit not dreading the prospect of another installment if it happens.

If that ritual truly ends here, it won’t break my heart too much, and if they make another one it wouldn’t surprise or bother me. Again, it all lands somewhere in the middle.

The Upside: Some great traps, fantastic gore, a bit of moral rigidness, thoughtfulness and some good performances.

The Downside: A nonsensical police procedural that exists only because the killer is close to being caught but can’t get caught.

On the side: Director Kevin Greutert was contractually tied to the film, and Lionsgate exercised that clause in his contract to keep him from directing their competition – Paranormal Activity 2.


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