"Saw II": Thriller sequel flounders amid ho-hum horror

In the current issue of the horror-buff magazine Fangoria, the producers of the fast-buck sequel "Saw II" proudly proclaim that they "read and responded" to Internet chatter from splatter fans who begged for answers to questions left tantalizingly unanswered in "Saw," the surprise box-office hit released just one day shy of a year ago.

It's bad enough that catering to one's audience is antithetical to original filmmaking, but "Saw II" isn't even originally unoriginal. The producers were in such a hurry to capitalize on their hit (while claiming they were "on the fence" about a sequel) that they co-opted Darren Lynn Bousman's already-written screenplay titled "The Desperate," recruited "Saw" co-writer Leigh Whannell for a quick makeover, and hired Bousman (with a background in commercials and music videos) as "Saw II's" first-time director.

Is it any surprise that the result is a gawd-awful mess? It's bigger and bloodier, and fans may appreciate the revelation of the "Jigsaw" killer's backstory and sadistic motivation. But you'll be hard-pressed to find a shred of the perverse ingenuity that made "Saw" so effectively unnerving.

As Jigsaw, the cancer-stricken killer who creates elaborate Rube Goldberg devices that his tormented victims must escape from or meet horribly violent deaths, Tobin Bell creepily compensates for the fact that he spent most of "Saw" face down on a cold tile floor. Here, Jigsaw's latest death game involves a corrupt and hot-tempered cop named Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg, struggling to dignify a one-note role) whose estranged son is held captive in a booby-trapped crack house with seven other people. If they don't escape from Jigsaw's deadly contraptions within two hours, a sarinlike nerve gas will cause them to "bleed from every orifice."

It takes a full hour before Matthews' partner (Dina Meyer, returning from "Saw") says "I know how this guy works," and even then she ignores advice to "think outside the box," resulting in inept police work while Jigsaw's prisoners yell and panic, killing each other or dying by idiotically falling into Jigsaw's traps.

"There will be blood," warns Jigsaw, and so there is. Yawn-inducing puddles of it, the inevitable outcome of dim-witted characters following the contrived rules of a mock-clever screenplay. With no memorable roles to play, the cast compensates with extreme overacting. Pity them, it's not their fault.

There are some arbitrary connections to "Saw" in the third act, and there is, of course, a twist, which won't be spoiled here for the benefit of those who will probably make "Saw II" this weekend's No. 1 box-office hit. Come Halloween Monday, however, even die-hard "Saw" fans will feel more tricked than treated, but that won't earn them a refund.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Movie review 1.5 stars

"Saw II," with Tobin Bell, Donnie Wahlberg, Dina Meyer, Shawnee Smith. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, from a screenplay

by Bousman and Leigh Whannell. 91 minutes. Rated R for strong violence, drug use, language and sexuality. Several theaters.