Well, Saw was a success at the box office back when it was first released in 2004. It managed to make back its money easily (well, it did cost $1.1 million to make) and well, the results of the test screenings went well so of course, Lionsgate wanted a sequel immediately and they wanted it fast.
However, James Wan was unavailable to direct as he was busy with the international promotional tour for Saw and he accepted an offer from Universal Pictures to boot which became Dead Silence. Instead, the producers hired Darren Lynn Bousman to helm the sequel. If you're wondering why him in particular, well, it turned out that prior to Saw; the guy had written a script called The Desperate. Despite the fact that it was rejected by many studios, the producers managed to get their hands on it and figured that with the appropriate changes, this could be the next Saw film.
Co-writer Leigh Whannell did return to rewrite Bousman's script to fit in with this then new franchise. This is actually a common for sequels with notable examples such as Hellraiser Inferno, American Psycho 2 and The Lost Boys: The Tribe being among the notable examples. Sometimes it's better off as a sequel, other times not. So how does this one hold up?
Fortunately, it actually does work well. The most interesting thing to note however is that tonally, this and Saw I are completely different. Saw I acted more like a Thriller but with Saw II, it kind of felt like I was watching an Action movie. Don't get me wrong, it's not exactly like an action movie but with the rapid editing and the pacing is a bit more fast, it just came across as that to me.
The first Saw did have some of rapid editing but it wasn't to the sequel's extent where it was shot and edited like some heavy metal music video.
But while the look and feel of the film isn't the only thing that's different, it still has a bit of the Mystery element as well a couple of new twists. What would sound vague, especially coming from Jigsaw's mouth, actually plays a part in the grand scheme of things and a lot of it's not only intertwined well but also feels like a natural progression of things, particularly with the Amanda Young character. She has actually progressed from survivor to the secondary antagonist, nobody in-universe simply knew from start save for Jigsaw himself.
And the film does a good job of masking the character's true self and Shawnee Smith's performance just sells it all the way.
She's not the only one who gives a very good performance nor she is the only character that is put to good use. Jigsaw is still an effective villain even when he's out in the open. It's amusing to see him as a full on sadist for a few moments as there are moments of him smiling and even on the audio tapes, his chuckles can be heard when he gives out a hint.
"It's right in front of your eyes."
"It'll be like finding a needle in a haystack."
Though in this film's defense, he's not a full on wisecracker, just that apparently Jigsaw might have a bit of sense of humor. A sick one mind you but still although he does smile plenty of times.
But that aside, he never comes off as over the top and it certainly helps that the character is once again played by Tobin Bell. He plays the characters as very calm, barely raising his voice despite the aforementioned sick sense of humor that he tended to showcase. He sounded very genuine in context about everything and really, he's one of the more memorable aspects about the film.
Another stellar performance comes from Donnie Wahlberg. Yes, if you're wondering, he's the brother of Mark Wahlberg. Surprised? Well, depends if you knew this beforehand. But anyway, Donnie gives out a lot of range from sadness to extreme anger. Like Tobin Bell, he never goes over the top and not once felt forced while going into any of the aforementioned emotions.
For the B-Plot story actors, they do a convincing job with Franky G as Xavier, giving a memorable performance as his own just driving home the point of how much of a douche he is. Yes, the characters would come off as dead meat for some people but that's not the case with them. They're not random schomoes Jigsaw just kidnapped right off the streets just because, as stated in the film; they all have something in common and actually connect to the A-Plot and in their defense, they're not stupid; they do try to find a way out or at least find something that could potentially help their escape. It's just that these are not people who would easily get along.
The interesting thing is, there's no one to root for in this film and it works; it's a good thing. No one is supposed to be likeable. I suppose if you like a good villain, Jigsaw is the guy for you, same case with Amanda but there's a lot of moral ambiguity among this film and the others.
One example I point to is where Eric Matthews destroys all his work right in front of him with Jigsaw not batting an eye. And when he reaches his breaking point, he just flat out beats up the guy.
In another film, Eric would have been the hero to root for as some action hero who takes no prisoners-no question about it. But as it stands that in this film, he's just as much as a scumbag as some of the people in the B-Plot like Xavier. In a way, he's quite frankly no better than someone like Jigsaw considering that he pretty much setup various people just to make himself look good and the kicker being that he was pretty much beating up a cancer patient. Yes, he's a psychopath but he still has cancer nevertheless.
And it all works, it really does. I like the fact that no one is a real good guy here. Hell, beating up Jigsaw is even encouraged despite Kerry's (played by Dina Meyer) pleas not to antagonize him and you know what? Eric and everyone should have listened to her.
There are some weak links though, Beverly Mitchell and Erik Knudsen are kind of boring and a bit of Darren Lynn Bousman's direction, given its his first directing gig-especially writing wise, he's bound to make some hiccups but if there was anything that's kind of over the top, it's the rapid editing to make it seem thrilling and hardcore. Admittedly I tend to like that sort of thing but I imagine it'll be an annoyance for others. But in his defense, while he does get right to the point but at the same time, particularly with the introduction of Eric and his son Daniel, the establishment of their relationship is well done. It says everything everyone needed to know without dwelling on it for too long and goes straight into the action.
This film marks of the beginning of what was originally supposed to be a trilogy but soon evolved into one big storyline. Plenty of story elements from this film are brought up again in flashbacks like in Saw V and VI.
If you're new to the franchise, it's a decent entry so I recommend this and the first film just in case you get lost watching it (aside from a nice reminder of the first film's events when Daniel and Amanda enter the bathroom from the first Saw). But if these are not your kind of films then these aren't for you, trust me.