When we last left the "Saw" franchise, Jigsaw was revealed to be a victim of a broken heart (awwwwww), and the producers bent over backwards to cram new, outlandish twists into this head-slappingly dreadful franchise, hopeful to extend the profit trail long enough before horror fans start to realize they're being taken advantage of. After four of these harebrained features, I'm starting to think the audience enjoys the violation.
With Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and Amanda (Shawnee Smith) dead, two FBI profilers (Scott Patterson and Athena Karkanis) are called in to assist Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) with his investigation of the homicides and elaborate torture devices Jigsaw left behind. When SWAT Commander Rigg (Lyriq Bent) is kidnapped and set off on game giving him 90 minutes to survive a series of traps, the cops are in close pursuit, leading them to the doorstep of Jigsaw's former ladylove Jill (Betsy Russell), where a few answers about Jigsaw's macabre modus operandi are provided, along with chilling plans for the future.
There's a built-in audience for the "Saw" films at this point in the game. I get that. What I find more confusing about this phenomenon is the adoration of such amateurish filmmaking and feverishly corner-cutting, logic-be-damned screenwriting. "Saw" has become a Halloween staple, now in its fourth year of bloodshed production. The previous entries in the franchise have been laughably acted, frightfully directed exercises in voyeurism, somehow equating the salivating display of blunt ultraviolence and fountains of gore with a social message on appreciating the brevity of life. Would it be shocking if I wrote that "Saw IV" is simply another serving of the same stale soup?
There's really no reason to shake up the series at this point, since prior "Saw" sequels have been rewarded with bewilderingly ardent fans and impressive (if not blockbuster) box office returns. "Saw IV" is only trying to reheat the Jigsaw myth into pliable form to stretch the material for two more planned sequels after this, and for that goal alone, the latest round of sadistic traps and melodramatic tribulations is a great success. As for elements like "acting" and "suspense," the latest "Saw" feature still leaves a lot to be desired.
If "Saw III" struck you as particularly punch-drunk with plot twists and character connections, bring some shoulder pads to "Saw IV." Picking up right where we left off (kinda), director Darren Lynn Bousman is faced with the impossible task of sorting out the mess left behind in the previous sequel. But here's the twist: he just adds more mess! The storyline for "IV" is a madcap construct that feels like watching "Back to the Future: Part II" in reverse; a time-hurdling package where the screenwriters are flying blind trying to dazzle the audience with shameful manipulations that have long lost their novelty. Perhaps there really is some enormous arc to all of these movies, but the way "IV" ends, with yet another dramatic rehash of deaths and reveals of allegiances, I'm willing to bet the screenwriters don't have a clue what's actually going on during any single point of this movie.
As for the blood-soaked trap sequences, fans should be pleased with the buffet of hurt in "IV." There's plenty of gross-out moments and squeeze-your-boyfriend's-arm portraits of agony, yet the new film is more concerned with spinning yarn than squeezing heads. It leaves the picture with a Jigsaw-lite choice: either face the obnoxious, over-edited blur of the trap sequences or watch the story, which attempts to rationalize Jigsaw's ludicrous plan for humanity. In the long run, both speeds of feature are a complete waste of time. However, the latter provides some giggles, and that's a commodity these "Saw" pictures could use more of.
I suppose the biggest shock of the film is the confident performance from Scott Patterson (better known as Luke from "Gilmore Girls"), who is the first "actor" of the series to not completely drown in embarrassing acting-class hysteria. More curiosity is provided by Betsy Russell, a former nudie queen of 80's teen flicks making a triumphant return to acting. Well, maybe not triumphant, but welcome.
"Saw IV" is by far the best installment of this cringingly moronic odyssey of pain. Granted, that's faint praise, but there's something to be said about leaving a theater with only a mild cultural headache instead of a knee-buckling case of cinematic depression.
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