The first thing you see in Saw IV is Jigsaw's balls. A sign of things to come? Most definitely.
Despite the death of cinema's favourite ironic punisher, his work will live on - a mysterious tape concealed in the deceased's gut will see to that - but sadly the people tasked with continuing his legacy have done a bit of a slapdash job.
Any two-bit hack worth his salt could knock out a Saw movie - the formula is hardly Einstein's theory of relativity. Conjure up some disgusting torture scenes, link them together with a flimsy plot thread, throw in some profound lines for your leading man and release at Halloween - a time of year where even the crummiest horror films are guaranteed some modest bank. Last year's third instalment was something of a guilty pleasure (I got a bit of stick for awarding it a four-star review in a national magazine last year) because it followed these guidelines to the letter and even had the good grace to tie the three films up with a unifying storyline.
Saw IV, on the other hand, is a perfect example of how not do whack out a mindless horror movie. Fans of the Saw series want blood, gore and gaps in between to graze on their popcorn. What they get here is an overly complex story arch that unwisely tries to incorporate several different plot threads and flashbacks, with a few token gory scenes lobbed in. It seems churlish to scold a film for not
being dumb entertainment, but if the Saw series is not LA Confidential - your braindead Halloween audience isn't going to be able to follow a story with even the slightest kink in it.
Jigsaw, as you may have guessed from the posters with his head in a bowl, is dead. Only a moron would ditch the character entirely, so Tobin Bell appears in flashbacks courtesy of his ex-wife, who sheds light on exactly how he became a killer. Meanwhile, Police Sergeant Rigg (Bent) has been abducted and faces some tests of his own, forced to dish out punishment to sinners if he wants to save fellow abductee Eric Mathews (Wahlberg), of the previous two Saw movies. Chasing up the case are FBI Agents Perez (Athena Karkanis) and Strahm (Scott Patterson), tasked with making sense of the whole bloody mess.
Right from the start (after Jigsaw's nutsack airing) it's clear that something is awry. The first torture scene - a quaint 'see no evil, speak no evil' number -doesn't have half the imagination of some of the series' better sequences, and this lack of imagination continues throughout: most scenes will leave you either scratching your head or coming up with a dozen ways the characters could escape. For a movie that relies solely on bloodshed and spilt offal, the set-ups are mostly inexcusably lame. The one stand-out involves a married couple skewered together, but it's poorly executed and will disappoint the braying gore-hounds. Some of the mechanisms are so ridiculous, you half expect the machinery involved to be branded with ACME.
Making matters worse are the puppets involved in Jigsaw's twisted games. Rigg is your trademark cliched US cop who cares too much, while the FBI agents are your typical desk-thumping suits, subscribing to the theory that shouting more solves crimes more quickly. Director Bousman has been over-ambitious in trying to link all the incidental characters together, so much so by the finale, everyone
has faced some sort of game or test. The last act is so ridiculously contrived, it completely takes you out of the moment, leaving you free to rubber-neck a real car crash of an ending. And really, have Jigsaw and friends really not got anyone better to slice open? Some of the reasoning revealed in the final scenes defy belief.
Believe it or not, there's still plenty of mileage in the Saw series yet. Fifth and sixth instalments have already been green-lit, and as long as the flashback continues to prosper as cinematic device, then Jigsaw can continue his merry murdering ways. But the direction that Saw IV takes the franchise betrays the original movies' earnest intentions - to create a sympathetic killer with brains as well as power tools. Without Jigsaw, none of the pieces of Saw IV fit together - and it's a puzzle that you simply won't want to complete.