SAW V (2008)
Director: David Hackl
If there is one constant in the horror genre, it's that you can't keep a good villain down. Whether it be the classic creatures like Dracula and Frankenstein, or modern monsters like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, any horror villain worth his salt will be able to find his way back through as many sequels and remakes as Hollywood sees fit. Perhaps the most recent example of this has been Jigsaw, the primary antagonist of the Saw franchise. Despite the first movie originally being intended for a direct-to-video release, its theatrical release was so successful that Lions Gate Films and Twisted Pictures started churning out sequels on an annual basis. And even after Jigsaw's apparent demise in the climax of Saw III, the continuing popularity of the franchise shows that not even death can stop a truly committed horror villain. This is what leads us to Saw V. The continuing saga of Jigsaw's bloody quest to challenge people and make them appreciate life's blessings, Saw V ultimately gives us more of what you'd expect out of the franchise. But whether or not that's a good thing is what we're here to discuss.
Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) believed that he was the last man standing after the events of Saw IV, free to continue the series of deadly games started by the now deceased Jigsaw (Tobin Bell). But he soon learns that Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson), the FBI agent most dedicated to catching Jigsaw, survived the trap that Hoffman had set for him. With Agent Strahm growing more suspicious of Hoffman's activities and becoming obsessed with stopping Jigsaw's legacy after the death of his partner, Hoffman must cover his tracks and tie up all the necessary loose ends to make sure nobody discovers that he is the successor to the Jigsaw mantle.
And while he tries evading Agent Strahm, Hoffman must still go about business as usual. A group of five people — spoiled rich kid Mallick (Greg Bryk), newspaper reporter Charles (Carlo Rota), fire marshal Ashley (Laura Gordon), city planner Luba (Meagan Good), and real estate agent Brit (Julie Benz) — awaken to find that they've been chosen to participate in Hoffman's first game as the new Jigsaw. All of them connected in some way to a fatal house fire, the five have been put in this situation to force them to go against their own self-serving nature and work together if they hope to survive the grueling series of tests they'll have to endure.
Over the years, the Saw franchise has become less about telling coherent, flowing narratives, and more about having a twist ending, using flashbacks to build upon the previous movies, and emphasizing the bigger, bolder, bloodier deathtraps. And there is some evidence of that in this, the fifth entry into the saga. The movie feels cramped, adding little details here and there to build upon the franchise's past while still attempting to move forward with its own stories. And it feels weaker, too. There's not enough actual story here to really sustain a full movie, so by the end, everything is stretched out to the point that it concludes with a whimper instead of a bang. Saw V seems to exist only to bridge the gap between the previous movies and Saw VI. I respect it for trying to fill in plot holes, answer old questions while setting up new ones for the future, and actually trying to tell a focused story along the way. But it ultimately gives the impression of being an explanation for the past instead of a full-fledged movie in its own right.
At the helm is David Hackl, taking over the reigns from Darren Lynn Bousman. Hackl worked as the production designer on the second, third, and fourth Saw movies, and served as second unit director for Saw III and Saw IV. So Hackl is no stranger to the world of Jigsaw. This is first actual time working as the primary director of a movie, and I thought he did a solid job. While Hackl does little to distinguish himself from previous Saw directors Bousman and James Wan, he at least manages to do an adequate job of things. He keeps things rolling at a brisk pace, and tries his best to make sure the audience is never bored.
Up next is the screenplay, written by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. Having previously written Saw IV, this gives them the chance to follow up on some dangling plot threads while creating some new ones for future sequels. They also manage to once again balance three storylines: the cat-and-mouse game between Detective Hoffman and Agent Strahm, the five victims in need of an exit, and a series of flashbacks that show Jigsaw training Hoffman to be his successor. Melton and Dunstan have definitely stepped up their game here, as they seem to have improved upon the mistakes they made during Saw IV's writing process. The two primary stories are much more linear, making the movie easier to follow. It's kinda hard to get into a movie if you have a hard time keeping track of what's happening, so this helped a lot. And in regards to the flashbacks, taking these looks back really feels like it's building upon what the previous movies have all established. It might feel like it's pulling a retcon in some instances, but it never feels cheap.
But in spite of those positives, Melton and Dunstan haven't really written the most memorable movie they could have. There's not much that stands out beyond the traps. The storyline with the five victims running the gauntlet of traps is almost a repeat of Saw II, and ultimately ends up feels like it's just filling in the gaps in the running time that the other storylines couldn't take care of. The movie seems to put more emphasis on Agent Strahm's investigation, which itself seems seems contrived at times (though it does get progressively better). The worst part, though, is the ending. Look at the poster at the top of this review, and you'll see that it carries the tagline, "You won't believe how it ends." And the tagline is right. I couldn't believe how it ended. As I said earlier in the review, Saw V concludes not with a bang, but with a whimper. It reaches the climax and just limps along to the credits. The Saw movies usually conclude with some kind of twist, but the ending of Saw V isn't that much of a twist. That is, if you can even call it one. I don't want to spoil it, but the ending is kind of a disappointment.
Last on my list is the acting, which is give or take. Jigsaw is the backbone of the franchise, and Tobin Bell once again puts forth a top-notch performance. He's consistently contributed some of the best acting in the Saw franchise, and this entry is no exception. Unfortunately, due to plot-related circumstances, the cast has to be led by Costas Mandylor and Scott Patterson. Mandylor is very good as a character that had spent the better part of the franchise being a shady part of the background. He may be unfairly compared to Bell or Shawnee Smith by some fans of the series, but Mandylor does a really good job, and I can't complain. Patterson, though, seems like he's forcing it. He doesn't stray into "over the top" territory, but it feels as if he's trying too hard. That's kind of a shame, too. It doesn't help anything that he has to speak in a raspy voice due to his character suffering a throat injury early in the movie, and Patterson's use of the voice is inconsistent. It fades in and out, and it hurts his performance. And of the five victims stuck in Jigsaw's series of traps, only two of them stand out. One of them is Julie Benz. She's good in pretty much everything she's in, and Saw V is no exception. The other is Carlo Rota, who I thought was fun in a sardonic kind of way. The other three are utterly forgettable, though, which is kinda sad, really.
The thing about Saw V is that it runs out of steam after a while. It's a solid enough movie, but by the end, it's nearly worn itself out. It quite frankly doesn't make the same kind of impression as the others did. While it does have some cool traps and builds towards Saw VI, it is an ultimately mediocre movie that is only slightly above average at its best. And although I said the same thing about the previous movie, Saw V is the weakest entry in the series. It's still worth a watch if you go in with lowered expectations, but it's just... adequate, I guess is the word I'm looking for. Yeah, "adequate" works. So I'll give Saw V a "thumbs in the middle" with three stars, since it's a decent enough movie to earn that. And in the movie's defense, it did leave me anxious to see how Saw VI will follow up on it. That's a plus, right?
Final Rating: ***