Serial killer movies often have a creepy sort of anti-intellectualism running through them. Films like Se7en, and Silence of the Lambs seem to equate brilliance with cruelty, pitting effete intellectuals against more down to earth cops and FBI agents. In those two films, the killers were at least up against opponents who seemed competent. In Saw II, both the cops and the victims are so dim the whole elaborate exercise hardly seems worthwhile.
Tobin Bell plays the resigned-looking "Jigsaw," one of those cinema serial killers with a faintly British accent and the ability and resources to set up elaborate technical systems without leaving a paper trail of receipts, work orders and real estate transactions that would, in the real world, have law enforcement busting down his door while he was still testing the tape in his micro-cassette. Like the villain in countless other splatter films, he’s motivated by a twisted morality, and, as is traditional in the worst of these films, the victims are portrayed with so little sympathy that the audience is practically invited to join in with the villain in relishing their suffering.
"Jigsaw" has trapped eight people in an empty house and is systematically killing them off with a series of deadly "games" involving "a lethal nerve agent," hypodermics, booby-trapped doors, and plenty of grody shots of head wounds, shredded skin, coughed up blood and convulsions. Watching this spectacle along with the audience is the father of one of the prisoners, a hangdog cop (Donnie Wahlburg) who, along with his SWAT team, has ended up in a standoff with the terminally ill serial killer. While Jigsaw drones the usual super-villain blather the cop and his team watch on a video monitor as the victims blunder around struggling to work out "puzzles" that would have been superfluous if they’d done what most people would do and conferred with each other for a few minutes after listening to their captor’s first recorded message.
Among the trapped victims is Frankie G. as Xavier, a thuggish drug dealer, Erik Knudson as the cop’s troubled teenaged son, and Shawnee Smith reprising her role as Amanda, a hollow-eyed leftover from Saw. Glenn Plummer plays Jonas, who qualifies as the most sympathetic character because unlike the rest of the cast he occasionally talks reasonably about what’s going on rather than pontificating, screaming, cowering, and hitting things. There’s a lot of eccentrically choppy editing that is perhaps intended to convey adrenaline driven panic but does help to make some of the more gore-ridden scenes bearable, and much of the movie is filmed with an unearthly, greenish brown lighting so closely associated with video games that some of the shots in Saw II, (especially the ones of unbelievably muscle-bound Frankie G), resemble computer animation.
Combine this with its weakly drawn characters and Saw II comes across less as a narrative than an especially sadistic video game, one of those that would result in evening news segments with anxious parents and child advocates "viewing with alarm." There may be a purpose to Saw II beyond making money by stroking the viewing public’s latent and not-so-latent sado-mascochism, but it’s hard to imagine what it might be.