Monday, September 26, 2011

Saw 3D (2010)

Everything must come to an end, be they good or bad. And eventually, even the longest-running horror movie franchises will end as well. Some even proclaim the latest sequel is "the final chapter" yet still have enough steam to keep on chugging along. You'll even see the rare instance of a horror franchise with multiple final chapters (I'm looking at you, Friday the 13th). While this mostly applied to the horror juggernauts of the '80s, it also goes for those of the new millennium, as evidenced by the recent conclusion of the Saw franchise.

It had a good run, with a new installment being released the weekend before Halloween every year since Lions Gate released James Wan and Leigh Whannell's original Saw in 2004. But if Jigsaw's bloody tale had to come to a close, the crew at Twisted Pictures chose to end it with a little style. So that's why instead of plain ol' Saw VII, the franchise was brought into the third dimension with Saw 3D. And oddly enough, the franchise comes to an end with neither a bang nor a whimper, but a "huh?"

Saw 3D picks up mere seconds after the end of Saw VI, as rogue cop Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) swears revenge after managing to survive the trap left for him by Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell). But having that revenge will not be easy, because she has already pointed him out to the police. With internal affairs detective Matt Gibson (Chad Donella) leading the manhunt and Jill in protective custody, Hoffman has a hell of a lot of hurdles to jump if he wishes to remain the heir to the Jigsaw mantle.

But like each of the Saw sequels, there's a secondary storyline. This one follows Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flanery), who has shot to fame with a best-selling memoir about how he survived one of Jigsaw's traps. But the truth is that his book is a work of fiction; Bobby was never targeted by Jigsaw, and he fabricated the whole thing as a get-rich-quick scheme. His deception will not go unpunished, as he finds himself placed in a labyrinth of traps. Stuck in these traps are members of his entourage who helped to propagate the lies in his book. And to give Bobby sufficient motivation to participate, his wife has been kidnapped and will be burned alive if he fails.

Saw 3D is an awkward movie, because it isn't quite the conclusion I was expecting. Instead of laying everything out on the table and wrapping it all up, the movie only answers the franchise's biggest unanswered question — whatever happened to Dr. Gordon after the first Saw? — while at the same time raising a few more. It's like they were fully expecting to leave something for Saw VIII in the event that they change their minds about this being the final chapter. (And you just know that they will eventually.) For a movie that's supposed to be the last installment in a franchise, it felt a little too open-ended. But outside of that, I honestly didn't think it was a tremendously bad note for the Saw series to end on.

At the helm is Kevin Greutert, directing his second consecutive entry in the franchise. The movie was originally supposed to be directed by Saw V director David Hackl, but Lions Gate exorcised some kind of contractual clause at the very last minute to bring Greutert back to the franchise. It makes me wonder how things would have turned out if he hadn't returned, because Greutert had been lined up to direct Paranormal Activity 2 before Lions Gate yanked him back into the fold.

Greutert's had a long history with the Saw franchise, having served as the editor of the first five movies before directing Saw VI. And while Saw 3D is only his second feature-length directorial effort, it really feels like he knows what he's doing. Maybe it helps that he was an editor for so long before moving into the director's chair, because I got the impression that he knew exactly how he wanted things to play out. The way shots are composed and scenes are paced gave me the impression that not only was he aiming to improve upon what he'd done in the previous movie, but try to make the best horror movie he could. Greutert's direction is tight, focused. It helps that he has some assistance in the form of Brian Gedge's well-done cinematography and the fabulous score from Charlie Clouser, but Greutert shows that he's a perfectly capable director and Saw 3D is a fine movie in part because of his work.

And then there's the whole 3D aspect of the production. The bad thing about reviewing a 3D movie after it's already been released on home video is that, since studios don't include those red/blue glasses with the DVDs anymore, 2D is your only option. You can't see Saw 3D in actual 3D anymore unless you've spent a thousand dollars on a 3DTV, another hundred on a 3D Blu-ray player, and thirty or forty bucks on the 3D Blu-ray disc. (Which makes it weird, since although the DVD covers have renamed the movie "Saw: The Final Chapter," the movie's opening and closing credits still bear the title "Saw 3D.")

I haven't seen the 3D Blu-ray, so I can't judge how well the effect is pulled off on home video. But in the theatrical release, it looked really good. It was immersive, and all the blood and guts and sharp objects that came flying at the screen really popped. The fact that the movie was shot naturally with 3D cameras as opposed to doing one of those cheap post-production transfers helps a lot. But to its credit, the movie still looks good in 2D. All the shots intended to play with the 3D effects are a little awkward without the added depth, but it's nothing that can't be overlooked.

But let's move along to the script, once again written by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to call their script flawed. The fact that Jigsaw is limited to only two or three very short scenes is bad enough. But I really didn't like that Melton and Dunstan felt that that they had to do the whole "victim runs a gauntlet of traps" story again. I'll confess that I thought it was better executed here than in some of the other Saw movies, since Bobby Dagen is a pretty likable character. But I think that the movie would have worked a lot better had it focused solely on Hoffman's story alone.

The first trap we see in the movie had me scratching my head too. The trap is a fairly ordinary setup for the Saw franchise, but it's in broad daylight, out in the open with a huge crowd of people watching. The kicker is the whole thing is never once mentioned again. If it was, I never caught it. If you aren't going to follow up on it in some fashion, why even do it at all? You'd think one of Jigsaw's traps happening out in public with an audience would be something you'd want to build upon. But Melton and Dunstan do nothing with it beyond the one scene. The surviving characters don't even reappear anywhere else in the movie, despite at least one scene where they could have. It all just screams "wasted opportunity."

And the ending had me a bit flummoxed too. It explains just where Dr. Gordon has been since the first Saw's ending, but there's one element (which I won't spoil) that is done in such a way that it makes you wonder where Melton and Dunstan were going with it. The biggest problem is that if Saw 3D truly is the franchise's final chapter, we'll never find out. It's as if they knew that somebody would rope them into writing an eighth Saw movie sooner or later, so they had to leave at least one question unanswered so there would be something to follow up on.

Let's wrap this up with the only thing left for me to talk about, the cast. Returning to the role of Jigsaw's would-be successor is Costas Mandylor, who I thought did a great job. I've really dug his work over the last few sequels, and Saw 3D is no exception. Mandylor is intense in the role, really making the character's desperation and psychosis believable. The guy's a great villain, and he provides a nice contrast to the calm, cool, collected nature of Tobin Bell's Jigsaw.

And speaking of Tobin Bell, his absence here is sorely felt. Bell has always been the strongest part of every entry in the franchise, but the fact that he only has two or three scenes in all of Saw 3D really hurts the movie. The guy is stuck in what is essentially a glorified cameo, a real downgrade for someone who was once the defining figure of the franchise. I'm not expecting him to be the star (though that would have been a hell of a twist), but I'd have been happier if Bell had been given more screen time.

The same can be said for Cary Elwes, who finally makes his return to the franchise after being absent from all the other sequels. I won't give away the details of his return, but Elwes is great in his sadly limited appearance. Pretty much everyone I know who considers themselves a Saw fan has been waiting for the return of Elwes as Dr. Gordon, and while I'm happy to see him back, I wish he could have stayed longer.

And I also thought Sean Patrick Flanery, who plays our gauntlet-running victim du jour, was really good. When his character is doing the whole shtick to sell his book and preening for the news cameras, Flanery is really convincing as a guy who just wanted to get rich quick but is pushed farther by his deceitful, douchebag friends and PR people who just want to ride a gravy train to greater heights. You get the impression through Flanery's performance that Bobby knows he's in over his head on this press tour, and as he progresses through the series of traps, you can see that he's one of those few Jigsaw victims who seems to have genuinely learned his lesson. Bobby's actually a pretty likable character by the end, thanks mostly to Flanery's sympathetic performance.

Unfortunately, I didn't quite care for Chad Donella. I didn't buy him for a second. The character is rather blandly written, with no substance to it whatsoever. Donella's performance didn't help things at all, making the character come off as shallow as the script has written him. And I was actually kinda bummed that the writers didn't really seem to know what to do with poor Betsy Russell until the climax. All that's required of her is to sit around waiting for Mandylor to come and get her, which doesn't give her much of a chance to do anything. And this lack of anything to do doesn't really give Russell a lot of reason to try all that hard. It's a shame, really.

I've been a fan of the Saw franchise since the beginning. But with the recent sequels and this so-called conclusion, the franchise could give one the impression of being a marathon runner who starts off strong but ends the race limping across the finish line. Don't get me wrong, I didn't think Saw 3D in particular was a bad movie nor a wholly awful way to end the Saw story. It's just that I hate seeing a series of movies I like not ending on a high note, but instead after it has long run out of steam. If Saw 3D does indeed close the book on the saga of Jigsaw for good, at least it ended with a respectable effort from those who made it. It's a very flawed movie, but it's not a very bad one either. So on my typical scale of five, I'm going to give Saw 3D three stars. And as the franchise's villains are wont to say, "Game over."

Final Rating: ***

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