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Movie review

Saw * 1/2

Starring Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Leigh Whannell, Monica Potter. Directed by James Wan.

100 minutes. Rated R for strong grisly violence and language.

A sadistic serial killer is abducting morally wayward people and forcing them to play macabre games for their own survival. Opens Friday in area theaters.

You know there is something terribly wrong with a horror movie when it makes the audience laugh.

No, not the kind of laughing that comes when the scary movie has the words "scary" and "movie" in the title. Or the nervous tittering you hear when the audience -- like the doomed, clueless ingenue -- jumps when she brushes against a cob web, ignorant of the fact that there's a psychopath on the other side of the door.

No. We're talking that snarky snickering that only comes with horrifyingly bad acting.

In "Saw," the much-anticipated debut film by James Wan and Leigh Whannell, it is Cary Elwes who commits the crime of hacking away at his lines like some script-hating Freddy Krueger. For his role as Lawrence Gordon, a doctor with a dirty secret, Elwes creates an affected, impossible-to-place accent that severs the audience's suspended disbelief from its tenuous cord and sends it plummeting to the ground with a resounding thud. Watching Elwes mince and stagger and drag himself across this movie makes one wish he'd taken the wrong goblet from Wallace Shawn in "The Princess Bride." It is clear from this hatchet job that Elwes should stick to fairy tale films like "Bride," "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" and "Ella Enchanted." Please. Someone. Call his agent.

Elwes' co-star, Whannell, who plays the sniveling, sneaky photographer Adam, is no Olivier himself, but at least he can blame his failings on inexperience. One could argue that his complete inability to render emotion though facial expression demonstrates Whannell's ability to get into character. Others would beg to differ.

All this unconvincing acting is a real shame, because underneath it lies a screenplay (by Whannell, who might want to stick to writing) that had real potential. Compared by some with the slick thriller "Seven," "Saw" is a tight, tense story about a serial killer -- the Jigsaw Killer -- who targets his victims based on wrongs they have committed, mostly against him. His victims are drugged and put into perilous situations, and then challenged to save themselves by sacrificing the life of another.

Victims Elwes and Whannell find themselves in a disgustingly dank and filthy bathroom, shackled at the ankle to huge, rusty dripping pipes. A corpse lies between them in a pool of blood, a mini-cassette player and a gun in his hands. Their challenge is to work together to escape, something these chronically duplicitous men are barely capable of doing.

From this compelling opening, Wan shifts to a series of flashbacks, in which Elwes' Dr. Gordon recalls being questioned by the police as a suspect in the first murder. He recounts the dogged pursuit by Detective David Tapp (Danny Glover), a vigilant cop played with a deft subtly that makes Elwes' work all the more laughable. But then, Glover could have sent in his performance via Instant Messenger and still been more convincing that his co-stars.

Poor pacing is another weakness. In the first 45 minutes, there is only one grisly blood-and-entrails scene. Some low-grade anxiety builds as the climax approaches, but it is only during in the last 15 minutes or so that the edge-of-your-seat material comes into play. And like one of those 60 mph twisting, looping roller coasters with 100-foot drops, the action happens so quickly and intensely that the effect is lost. On the other hand, that rapid resolution is quite effective at deflecting attention from the story's inconsistencies and loose ends.

But then, so do the audience's guffaws.


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