How much easier life would be if one could argue in good faith that the Saw movies were being produced according to some sort of template; that except for the names these were all the same damn thing over and over again, like the Friday the 13th films. Ah, but excepting for the fact that they're all basically dreadful, the films actually vary wildly in plot and relative quality.
Thus can I say that Saw V is a sort of outlier in the franchise, what a Saw movie might look like if it weren't being made by a Saw filmmaker. And lo and behold, Saw V represents the first time in four movies that Darren Lynn Bousman isn't on hand to direct, handing over the reigns to David Hackl, the series' long-time production designer, of all things. I mean, cinematographers and editors going director, that's old hat. Producers? Usually regrettable, but it happens. But production designer-turned-director? That's a new one to me. For the record, Hackl (man, "hack" is right there in his fucking name) isn't a total wreck at the job, giving us a Saw a bit more... I hesitate to use this word, but stately, than the norm. By which I mean that it's a bit slower and quieter and relative to the other four, it's maybe a bit more interested in creating a gloomy mood than just jump-cutting from scare to scare. The result is a film square in the middle of the series, quality-wise: though the new film has some unabashedly dumb moments, its plot lacks the pathetic contortions that we saw in Saw IV, and of course nothing can approach the sheer hatefulness of Saw III.
The film picks up more or less where the last two (which took place at the same time, Saw IV revealed in a particularly idiotic plot twist) left off, although the pre-credits scene takes place in some never-never time that takes place much earlier, eventually we find out even earlier than Saw. And the first scene immediately post-credits takes place sometime around the finales of the last two films, but I wouldn't try to figure out the exact moment when.
Long story short, everything from the first four has been mostly wrapped up (the little girl left to die at the end of III has been rescued, off-camera), with all the police dead but Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), revealed in the last film's climax to be the new assistant killer, and FBI Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson), who only survives thanks to a particularly moronic stunt that gives us a very early indication of the approximate intelligence level that the film will have to offer: with his head trapped in a glass box filling with water, he jabs a pen into his own throat to give himself an emergency tracheotomy, so he can breath after his head is completely submerged. If that's not some kind of prizewinner or at least finalist for Dumbest Movie Moment in 2008, then I don't know what.
From that point on, the film rumbles on through its own variation on the usual motions: Strahm figures there's a man on the inside and as his investigation rather quickly points towards Hoffman, we get to see flashbacks (Whose? God knows) to the earlier days of Hoffman and John "Jigsaw" Kramer (Tobin Bell), the madman with the great ability for making super-elaborate death traps with morality-testing off switches. Hoffman, meanwhile, is busy covering his tracks and watching the latest test set up for our bloodthirsty edification: five strangers who are, in the end, connected by a shady real estate deal (the film wouldn't function at all differently if they hadn't been connected at all, incidentally), tossed into a series of rooms with nail bombs set to go off if they can't figure out how to open the lock. Notably, Jigsaw's trademarked videotape all but says right at the very start, "you'll need to work together, even though you are all venal, greedy bastards who've never worked together with anyone in your lives", and so of course the monstrously stupid victims - probably the stupidest in the series, which says far too much - go for whatever solution to their immediately puzzle will end up with one person dead, and when they realise at the end that they were really supposed to use teamwork, it's hard to say if the audience is supposed to be amazed and shocked or not.
At any rate, it leaves us with plenty of gooey, gory death scenes to satiate the fanboys, although notably there's only one trap that could possibly be described as "torture", and I think this is a significant part of the reason that Saw V doesn't feel so heavy and joyless as its predecessors. That, and Hackl's new direction for the film's look (it was shot, as ever, by the overtalented David A. Armstrong), which isn't quite so filthy as it is steely and gray. I'd almost say that Saw V is meant to look like a film noir, although if that was the case, then it failed. But the point being, it's not nasty and appalling to look at, which makes it at least a bit less unpleasant a filmgoing experience.
The biggest problem with the film, both as a Saw entry and a movie generally, is how much of the film is spent in the time of Mark Hoffman, more I think than any of the previous films followed Jigsaw, and given that Mandylor is a bad actor who cannot command our attention for more than a couple seconds at a time, this means that a full third of the film is spent in the company of a complete waste of a character. For those few, sad viewers who are actually here to see the dismemberment and the series' patently absurd mythology, that means they're saddled with a wholly unbelievable main character, and for the rest of us, dragged along for whatever reason, that means a really boring story intercut with really dreary death porn.
At any rate, the thing winds up in a twist so bland and unforced that I can't imagine even the least-attentive viewer didn't see it coming for at least a half-hour. That's the last reason that Saw V is at least marginally better than some of its fellows: it's straightforward. And even if most of the plot requires a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the other films' content, there's some small fun to be had in the flashbacks, which play like a greatest-hits retelling of how the famous bits in the other films came to be and give the film a valedictory feel. My lord, wouldn't it be nice if the Saw films were over? But back to my point, which is that the film doesn't actually require much attention or thought, which is a nice change, given how IV especially required a great deal of thought and failed entirely to reward it.
Let's be clear though: this is all "good" in the relative sense that this is still a Saw film.