Saw 3D opens with an update of a golden oldie: We see Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes), in the moments after his foot amputation from the first Saw (2004), dragging himself along the floor, then cauterizing his bloody stump on a hot steam pipe. It's a mini-appetizer of pain to get us in the mood. But then the film shifts to something a little new. Two hunky dudes and the hottie they're both dating wake up, bound and dazed, in the middle of one of Jigsaw's vintage torture setups. Each of the dudes faces a circular saw, and the girl is suspended from the ceiling, a third saw poised beneath her bare midriff. The novelty is that instead of being imprisoned in a disgusting dungeon, they're on display in an airy glass chamber in the middle of a crowded outdoor mall. As they struggle to get free (the dudes must decide if they want to save themselves or the girl, which turns out to be not much of a choice), spectators gather to watch and even snap cellphone photos, as if they were tourists gawking at Matt Lauer outside Rockefeller Center. I guess they're supposed to stand in for the violent voyeur in all of us. Then the slaughter commences, with a vital organ or two spurting out at the audience in 3D, a motif that will be repeated.
There has never been a Saw sequence quite so public, and it sets the tone for the rest of this ostensible final chapter. The central character is a fellow named Bobby, played by Sean Patrick Flanery, who was the kid in Powder and now suggests a super-bland Jason Bateman. Bobby has written a book called S.U.R.V.I.V.E.: My Story of Overcoming Jigsaw, and he's peddling it on talk shows, describing in great detail how the ordeal of slicing two hooks into his own chest and then hoisting himself proved, ironically, to be the most liberating moment of his life. ''I was reborn!'' he says, which I guess is supposed to testify that the moralistic lessons of Jigsaw's slice-and-dice traps and machines really work. It's Rube Goldberg torture…as therapy! Except that Bobby is a fraud; he was never actually one of Jigsaw's victims. And now, to pay for his crime of self-promotion, he is at last going to become a victim. He wakes up in a cage, his wife shackled in a distant room, and to get to her, he must undergo a chain of character-building sadistic tests. Call it the Stations of the Gross.
Saw 3D is sicko-exploitative, viscera-spewing trash, but at least it has a lean and mean pace and focus, and it isn't clotted with backstory. The few flashbacks work nicely, Tobin Bell (who plays John/Jigsaw) has a crisp menacing charm during his one brief appearance, and it's nice to see Cary Elwes, returning for the first time since the original Saw, on hand to close out the series. As always, the upshot of the violence is that there really is a fate worse than death. It's having to make the choice to dismember yourself in order to live. The ''games'' here have just enough grisly invention that you sometimes wish you could get them out of your head. There's a facial bear trap or two; a white-supremacist punk, glued to his car seat, learns that pain really is skin-deep; and Bobby has to do a lot of yanking he removes a fishhook that's been placed in someone's stomach by pulling it out through her mouth (a scene I confess I had to look away from because it was literally starting to make me sick), and he's got to wrench out a couple of his own molars.
Each year, during the week of Halloween, I go to another Saw film, and part of me is always wondering: How, and why, did movies this horrifying and grotesque ever become popcorn entertainment? Sure, in a queasy way, they're fun, but it also seems fair to ask whether there is some correspondence between the violence in a film like Saw 3D and the levels of anger and resentment that have been slowly and steadily rising in America. Now that the series is over (at least, until the moment a film called something like Saw: A New Beginning The Rise of Jigsaw gets greenlit), it can be said that the most disturbing thing about the Saw films is the way that they turn torture into a wink of megaplex vengeance. They're made, and consumed, as a big bloody joke, and that's scary. B-