Saw V (2008) **
Well, thatís a little better, anyway. Saw V still spends more of its time back-fitting bits of plot onto its predecessors than it does moving its own plot forward, and itís still irritatingly complacent about leaving loose ends for the next sequel to tie up, but because Saw IV was so desperately in need of back-fitted plot, the first of those defects is at least marginally excusable. Indeed, you really have to wonder why this story wasnít used for the third sequel, with Saw IVís revelatory revision of Saw IIIís conclusion tacked onto the beginning as a pre-credits teaser. If we temporarily give it the benefit of the doubt for Detective Hoffman anointing himself the new Jigsaw Killer, then this movie really does follow more or less logically on the events of Saw IIIó in marked contrast to the last film, which followed in no logical way upon anything.
So to reset the scene: Jeff Denlon (Angus MacFadyen again) emerged mostly intact from his test, but having learned nothing whatsoever from the experience, he took a surgical saw to the throat of John Kramer (still Tobin Bell), the terminally ill Jigsaw Killer, and in doing so doomed his wife, whose explosive collar was wired up to Kramerís heart monitor. This was after she had taken a bullet from Kramerís increasingly rebellious apprentice, Amanda Young, who was also in the process of failing her test, and whom Jeff shot to death immediately upon entering the killersí control center. Meanwhile, Special Agent Peter Strahm (still Scott Patterson) had discovered Kramerís lair, and was attempting a highly ill-advised one-man sting operation on it when he was locked inside the control room by the other Jigsaw Junior, renegade police forensics specialist Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor, also returning for another go-round). Jeff mistook Strahm for another Jigsaw accomplice, but his belligerent behavior upon meeting the cop accomplished nothing but to get him shot as well. And last but not least, Jeffís daughter was being held captive in another part of the lair, but only the conspirators themselves knew anything about that.
That gets us just about caught up and ready to join Strahm in his efforts to find a way out of Jigsaw HQ. It turns out thereís a secret door in one of the walls, leading into a hard-to-account-for network of catacombs whereby the killers presumably come and go without attracting outside notice. Unfortunately for Strahm, Hoffman is still in the area, and the next thing the FBI agent knows, heís emerging from sedation with an aquarium on his head and just enough time on his hands to process the significance of that fact before the tank begins to fill with water from the five-gallon jugs mounted to the ceiling. Strahmís survival instincts are rather better than those of most people in the Saw universe, however, and no sooner does he run out of air in the aquarium than he forcibly intubates himself through the throat with the steel-barreled pen he carries in his pants pocket. Yes, I know. Neither pens nor tracheotomies nor the human windpipe work that way.
The screenwriters do not know that, however, and Strahm survives his ordeal long enough to be found by the regular cops after Hoffman calls them in to assist his ďrescueĒ of the Denlon girl. Strahm may never have seen the face of his attacker, but he does know that something fucking fishy went on in that abandoned factory, and that his suspicions that Kramer had a second accomplice have been confirmed. He gets no opportunity to follow up officially, though, because his superior, Dan Erickson (Mark Rolston, from Aliens and Scanner Cop), pulls him off the Jigsaw case and all but orders him to go on vacation. The municipal police, for their part, are eager to consider the Jigsaw affair over now that Kramer and Young are both incontestably dead, and would have no interest in pursuing Strahmís ideas even if Hoffman hadnít been promoted to lieutenant in recognition of his ďheroism.Ē But weíve all seen enough of these movies to know the inevitable outcome of such administrative sidelining, havenít we? Sure enough, Strahm wastes no time in liberating all the Jigsaw files from the evidence room, so that he may devote his effectively involuntary leave of absence to catching the remaining killeró whom he already suspects to be somebody from Hoffmanís precinct.
Meanwhile, Saw V starts doing what Saw IV should have done, supplying Hoffman with some vague semblance of motive for his apprenticeship to Kramer. We now learn that Hoffman had a sister once, but that she was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, Seth Baxter (Joris Jarsky, from Savage Messiah and Survival of the Dead). Baxter was caught and sentenced to a suitably lengthy prison term, but went free after only five years due to one of those ever-popular ďtechnicalities.Ē It happened that this was right around the beginning of John Kramerís killing spree, and Hoffman exploited that fact to provide cover for a little vigilante justice. He kidnapped Baxter, and rigged his death to resemble the work of the Jigsaw Killer. (Two slight problems here: 1). Hoffman furnished Baxter with a perfect simulacrum of the usual Jigsaw videotape explaining the rules of the game, complete with Kramerís voice on the soundtrack; and 2). Hoffmanís faux-Jigsaw deathtrap is far more ambitious, from an engineering and construction perspective, than any of the real Kramerís handiwork, even if itís nowhere near as imaginative, conceptually speaking. The true Jigsaw Killer would never have stooped to ripping off Edgar Allan Poe.) Kramer was not pleased with the plagiarism, especially given the antithetical underlying aim (although Horus alone knows how Kramer could have gained access to such details of the case as would reveal that, seeing as they were exactly the sort of thing that detectives like to keep to themselves as a means of screening out false confessions), and he abducted Hoffman right from the precinct for a little chat. The replacement writers once again demonstrate their misapprehension that Kramer was a vigilante by focusing the menís conversation on criminal recidivism, but at least that framing of the issue affords Hoffman a reason for his subsequent behavior no less plausible than the average slasher villain origin story.
That was a long time ago, though. We need something going on in the here-and-now, and to that end, we are made privy for the rest of the film to Hoffmanís first solo Jigsaw caper. The victims were selected by Kramer, and he presumably devised the general form of their tests, but the much cruder quality of the equipment involved suggests that the execution is all Hoffmanís own. (Or at any rate, it would have suggested that had we not already seen the killer copís over-the-top take on ďThe Pit and the Pendulum.Ē) There are five participants, all of whom are implicated somehow in a shady land deal that climaxed with a whole family of squatters being burned alive in their illegally occupied tenement. Brit (Julie Benz, of Two Evil Eyes and Locusts: The 8th Plague) was the banker whose clients wanted to buy the land for redevelopment. Luba (Meagan Good, from Venom and The Unborn) was the corrupt city planning official whom Brit bribed to get the necessary permits. Mallick (Screamers: The Huntedís Greg Bryk) was the trust fund junkie who set fire to the condemned apartment building already occupying the desired lot in exchange for a high-quality fix. Ashley (Laura Gordon) was the fire department dispatcher who was paid off to let the place burn. And Charles (Carlo Rota, from Mission to Mars and City of Dark) was the tabloid journalist who buried the story, for which service he too was no doubt handsomely rewarded. These peopleís four-part challenge is configured so that there are two ways to win. Either all five players can make a relatively minor sacrifice at each stage, allowing everyone to escape alive but slightly the worse for wear, or the captives can feed one of their number to each trap, in which case the last survivor might hope to emerge unscathed at the endó unless, of course, the last two survivors slaughter each other over which one gets the grand prize. Naturally, Hoffman doesnít so much explain those alternatives as hint at them, leaving the players to draw whatever inferences they will. And speaking of inferences, Strahm has drawn plenty of his own while all thatís been going on, meaning that Hoffman will be increasingly forced to divide his attention between the aforementioned game and a bid to pin his crimes on his FBI nemesis.
Iím pretty sure I would hate Saw V had Saw IV not just shown me how exceedingly fucking awful a Saw movie was capable of being. This may not be evident from the foregoing recap, but a large part of Saw Vís point is to turn Amandaó whom the first two sequels portrayed as one of the central figures of the series, and whom Saw III specifically treated as second only to the Jigsaw Killer himselfó back into a character of little or no consequence. Iíve already said that Saw IIIís version of events, if handled in a more skillful and sensible manner, would have made something grand and unique out of the Saw series, so to see her role downgraded again in favor of the much less interesting Hoffman is really galling. Hoffman is of less interest than Amanda not just in the sense that he is a less engaging character (which, as an almost complete cipher, heíd pretty much have to be), but also in the sense that taking over the Jigsaw role means so little when he does it. The vigilante angle of which the new writers are so inexplicably enamored isnít a patch on the intensely personal mission that Kramer believed he was passing on to Amanda, even if we disregard the added significance of Amanda betraying her mentorís vision. Whatever the Jigsaw Killer had been before, Saw V reduces him to a cross between Bernie Goetz and Rube Goldberg.
I canít bring myself to hate Saw V, though, and the real reason why is that the damage is already done by this point. I said in my Saw IV review that bringing John Kramer back to life would have invalidated the point of the series, but Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan, and Thomas H. Fenton managed to do that without disturbing the killerís grave in the slightest. Just by giving Kramer a successor willing to carry on the work on his terms (or at least, on what the current writers mistakenly imagine his terms to be), the previous film made a mockery of whatever Saw I, II, and III had achieved. When Amanda rejected the fiction that the Jigsaw Killer dealt in redemption rather than murder, it meant ultimate defeat for Kramer, on a philosophical level that mattered far more to him than any of his successes in outmaneuvering the police or steering clear of whatever retribution his few surviving victims might have tried to inflict upon him. That was why Kramer described his test of Amandaís commitment to the mission as the most important of his careeró because if she failed it, as she did, it would mean that his work really would die with him. With Hoffman in the picture, though, the outcome of Amandaís test no longer matters in the slightest, and the twisted tragedy of Kramerís character arc is destroyed. Let Melton, Dunstan, and Fenton whittle whatever they please out of the wreckage; Iím past caring, which means Iím also past hating.