Review: ‘Saw X’ cuts away most of the fat from a tired series, returning it to its gory glory

A woman lifts a mask from her head.
Shawnee Smith in the movie “Saw X.”
(Alexandro Bolanos Escamilla / Lionsgate)
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Decent healthcare and a modicum of compassion: Isn’t that what any trap-devising torture master wants? So it seems in “Saw X,” a movie that has more fun not being a “Saw” sequel before becoming a better-than-passable one. As we dive in, gaunt John “Jigsaw” Kramer (Tobin Bell, his voice freshly regraveled) winces through his brain cancer scans.

“That was a long one,” he tells the technician. (Boo-hoo.) Unfortunately, Kramer’s case is terminal. And as he smirks through the bromides of his support group and gets his last will and testament in order, you can almost believe — barring one eyeball-sucking dream sequence — that Bell has stumbled into a different franchise altogether. (Call it “Sob.”)

This somber cello-scored intro becomes a passage, then an entire first act, and it’s impossible not to smile at how veteran “Saw” editor-turned-director Kevin Greutert commits to the long game. As it happens, Kramer hears about an experimental treatment: a cocktail-surgery combo unapproved by the FDA. Though weak, he flies to a secret clinic in Mexico City, where a saintly team of doctors and helpers eases him back toward hope.


And what should happen when the still-bandaged, post-operative Kramer returns to the clinic with a nice bottle of something to thank his caretakers? That’s, of course, when “Saw X” becomes the movie you do think it will be. The scam apparent, his vengeance burns clean and hot, and not wholly persuasively: Wasn’t John almost too weak to stand up a few scenes ago? Now he’s strapping people to chairs and recording “Play me” mixtapes.

A spooky white-faced puppet rides a mini bicycle.
Billy the Puppet in the movie “Saw X.”
(Alexandro Bolanos Escamilla / Lionsgate)

Never the sharpest objects in the post-9/11 horror toolbox, the “Saw” films were mainly valuable as training for artists that went on to tighter, bolder work: original director James Wan (“The Conjuring,” “Malignant”) and screenwriter Leigh Whannell (2020’s terrific gaslighter “The Invisible Man”). “Torture porn” was too fancy a term for these movies; other horror franchises captured the free-floating fear of the era better. (I’ll take a “Final Destination” any day.)

But there remains something trashy and fun about the “Saw” entries, even in their bad-TV police procedural stretches and ponderous obeisance to David Fincher’s “Seven,” the granddaddy of faux-moralistic violence. “Saw X” doesn’t have the drooling-dog irony of the series’ best kills: no pit of dirty hypodermic needles for a drug dealer, sadly (that’s in “Saw II,” if you’re curious). One unlucky victim goes rooting around his own skull for gray matter, which is as close as this movie gets to an indictment of the medical profession.

Still, that creepy puppet with the bow tie (Billy, to those in the know) does wheel into view like an old buddy with bad news. So does Amanda (Shawnee Smith), survivor of the iconic “reverse bear trap” from the first film and now Kramer’s assistant. The supporting players aren’t quite pulling off the screams — cutting off one’s own leg shouldn’t seem this achievable — but Bell compensates. His half-cracked grandeur, boosted by Smith’s skewed stares of adoration, sends the movie into a loopy giddiness. “Saw X” may not be the best one to start off with, but it’s hard to imagine a better one to end with.

'Saw X'

Rating: R, for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, language and some drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Playing: In wide release