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Saw II

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What “Saw” had going for it were its ideas. If it was occasionally too ugly for its own good, its stylishness and clever storytelling techniques made up for it.

“Saw II,” by comparison, has a lot of blood but almost no ideas. The maniac with a God complex who punishes people for their sins wasn’t exactly original with “Saw,” and it’s even less original in the sequel, where it’s the same killer with the same agenda.

This time, instead of two people locked in a room, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) has eight people locked in a house. He can monitor them by closed-circuit cameras, but there’s no need to. The place has been elaborately booby-trapped, and notes and cassette tapes provide the victims with clues as to why they’ve been chosen and what torturous things they must do to get out. It would seem that Jigsaw wants them to endure the trials and emerge better people, more grateful to be alive — but it could also be that Jigsaw really likes it when people fail his tests and die. It’s hard to tell with these serial-killer types.

Among the eight captives, the two least attractive ones die quickly and we’re left with six. They’re told via tape recorder that in two hours, they will die from the toxic gas they’ve been breathing, but that an antidote is in the safe in the middle of the room. The combination to the safe is for them to figure out based on the clues Jigsaw gives them.

But rather than work on that, the six people choose to scream at and bicker with each other for the next 90 minutes, to the point where not all of the film’s deaths are Jigsaw’s fault, if you catch my meaning.

Among the six are Amanda (Shawnee Smith), one of Jigsaw’s previous victims and one of the few alive to tell about it; Daniel (Erik Knudsen), a tough-acting teenager whose dad (Donnie Wahlberg) is the cop working the Jigsaw case; and Xavier (Franky G), an overly muscled drug dealer. These three play key roles in figuring out what Jigsaw is up to, with varying degrees of success at outsmarting him.

The first film benefited from James Wan’s David Fincher-style directing, but Wan has not returned for “Saw II.” The director this time is Darren Lynn Bousman, a young filmmaker whose style is best described as that of someone who watched “Saw” a few times and remembered some of its tricks.

More importantly, his screenplay, co-written with “Saw” scribe Leigh Whannell, lacks the sick imagination of the first film, the demented audacity of its twisted scenarios. It goes without saying that all of Jigsaw’s victims will have some connection to each other; what’s disappointing is how lame that connection turns out to be. (I’ll give the finale points, though, for effectively misdirecting our attention enough to deliver a couple of small surprises.)

My general impression is that people who hated the first film — and there were many — did so because of its brutality and gruesomeness. The sequel still has those traits, though perhaps not quite as vividly; what it lacks is the devious reasoning behind them. If you thought the violence in “Saw” was senseless, wait’ll you see it now.

C (1 hr., 36 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, abundant blood and violence and mayhem, and some-such and what-have-you.)

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