1 of 5 | Tobin Bell returns in "Saw X." Photo courtesy of Lionsgate
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 27 (UPI) -- The death of John Kramer hasn't stopped him from appearing in all but one of the Saw sequels because the twisted timeline can always flash back to Kramer making plans for after his death.
The new Saw X, in theaters Friday, is comparatively simpler and also more mature.
While still undergoing cancer treatment, Kramer (Tobin Bell) learns of an experimental trial through a member of a cancer support group. The first half-hour of the film actually plays out as a drama showing Kramer coping with his diagnosis, for the first time in the series.
Saw fans know that Kramer died before he finally succumbed to cancer, so this won't be the story of a miracle cure. Still, the buildup of the hope Kramer finds in the clinic allows him to feel the magnitude of the betrayal. But then it gets right to the traps.
By this point in his final months, Kramer had begun his work as the Jigsaw killer, putting people in traps to make them fight for their lives. One survivor who escaped his trap and reformed her life was Amanda (Shawnee Smith), who became his protegee and helps him enact revenge on the scammers of the fake clinic.
For the first half, Saw X gets out of warehouse spaces that are the hallmark of the series. Kramer is in Mexico, at a beautiful clinic, and even chasing the con artists in the streets of Mexico and in their lavish homes.
Kramer does find a warehouse space in which to set up his devious contraptions. Each ordeal is personalized for the crime each individual committed, and makes them squirm with righteous glory as each one brought this on themselves.
Most of his traps give the victim 3 minutes to carve up their forearms or otherwise mutilate themselves. Three minutes hardly seems like enough time even for the most willing participant, but the countdown is always suspenseful.
Many of the traps utilize all sorts of different saws. There's no simple hacksaw like the original movie.
Jigsaw won't slash anyone himself, but he demands cuts that seem far more painful than a regular stabbing. The sound design contributes to the squirminess of each mutilation.
Saw X is really the first Saw film to make Kramer the main character. He's been the driving force of the first eight films, but even the ones that revealed more of his backstory were centered on his victims.
How lovely for Bell at part 10 of his franchise to finally get a leading role. Of course, for his supporting role in Saw to turn into a franchise was already the jackpot for a character actor.
Scenes between Kramer and Amanda explore his mentorship of her more than any of the previous sequels. They allude to other events in the franchise but none so specifically that the audience would need to have seen every prior entry.
This is nearly 20 years after 2004's original Saw, but Bell only has to play decades younger while still in the throes of cancer. Makeup adds redness and makes his face appear even more gaunt.
At nearly two full hours, Saw X is a tad too long, though the opportunity to sit with Kramer in between traps is a mature distinction. A few aspects of his plan seem extreme, even by Jigsaw standards.
The Saw franchise never settled for just having Kramer kill more people in new traps. Each one crafted a story with mystery and philosophical underpinnings, some more successfully than others. Saw X is a definite success.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.