The first 'Saw' took heat for launching the 'torture porn' trend, but taken on its own terms, it was a cleverly nasty bit of business with a whopper of a surprise ending. While director James Wan went on to the more refined pastures of the 'Insidious' and 'Conjuring' franchises, the 'Saw' sequels increasingly curdled into nastiness and convoluted plotting as tortured as their victims. Seven years after the series hit its appalling nadir with 2010’s 'Saw 3D: The Final Chapter', it’s been…revived. 'Rebooted' would suggest variations on a theme; 'Jigsaw' instead slavishly repeats the past films’ formula.
Once again, a motley group of captives is run through an obstacle course of death traps designed to moralistically punish them for past sins. (Though brutal, none of the new tests enter the 'Saw' hall of fame for creativity.) These ordeals are intercut with assorted law-enforcement types and forensic scientists puzzling over mutilated corpses and other clues, trying to get to the bottom of the mystery. Given that evil mastermind Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) supposedly died ten years ago, the big questions are: Has he returned from the dead? If so, how? And if not, who has taken up his ghoulish mantle?
Unanswered, as always, is how the villain set up these industrial-scale death chambers without attracting attention, and how he (or she?) knows so much about the victims’ dark secrets. It all leads to a Big Climactic Reveal, and the one sprung by co-scripters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger (who were responsible for one of cinema’s most idiotic plot twists in 'Shark Night 3D') may strike some viewers as a colossal cheat. In any case, what we learn here ignores and contradicts quite a bit of the previously established 'Saw' mythology.
The directing Spierig Brothers – who, like Wan, hail from Australia, and previously helmed the more interesting 'Daybreakers' and 'Predestination' – keep 'Jigsaw' moving briskly enough and don’t wallow in mean-spiritedness in the manner of some previous entries. But neither are they able to rally much rooting interest in these bland characters, or to achieve the bottom-line goal of any horror film: Despite its meticulously detailed gore, 'Jigsaw' is rarely scary.