The Saw series, like most horror franchises, uses a lot of constants in its formula -- even when those constants don't seem particularly vital to the quality of the series. Saw III, for example, matches its predecessors in the dubious categories of histrionic yelling, equally histrionic smash-editing (often incorporating a generous helping of re-used footage, from the previous films or even from earlier in this one), and plot twists that depend on those histrionics to drown out implausibility.
But Saw III does actually have a plot to twist which, like its predecessors, sets it apart from most slasher films. When we last left Jigsaw (Tobin Bell, the only cast member who doesn't have to scream half his dialogue), he was dying, and taking young Amanda (Shawnee Smith) under his wing to continue his work. Saw III picks up with Jigsaw in even worse shape than before, his body breaking down while his moralizing creepiness remains more or less intact. Amanda brings in an unhappy doctor (Bahar Soomekh) to keep Jigsaw alive along enough to see one of his most elaborate games played all the way through.
The subject of this game is Jeff (Angus Macfadyen) is tortured not by, say, a series of chains hooked into his flesh that must be ripped out to avoid a ticking time bomb (that's reserved for a side character), but by the memory of his young son, killed by a drunk driver, and his desire for vengeance. Jeff is sent through one of Jigsaw's by-now-patented house of horrors (he must make all of his torture seed money in real estate) for twisted lessons in, um, well, the screenplay goes with "forgiveness." I'd probably say "anatomy" or possibly "physics."
Not all of the story makes sense, but the plain fact that this horror movie cuts between two stories, rather than following the standard explore/get stalked/get killed model (with optional "capture/torture," and even more optional "rescue," add-ons), is sort of gratifying. Bell may be given a similar assignment each time around -- whisper, don't ever surrender control, and act a little smug about it -- but to the filmmakers' credit, his character's story does have a progression of sorts from film to film. To Bell's credit, he gives evil an enjoyably calm, human façade. A couple of brief, wordless flashbacks in Saw III seem to hint at further backstory, presumably to be explored in Saws 4 through 6. This is impressive for a slasher villain; some other franchises don't bother to have the same actor play the bad guy more than once or twice in a row.
Indeed, the Saw films pay an inordinate amount of attention to continuity, such that the gaping plot holes from the first Saw are still being plugged in number three. It's almost as if the filmmakers know they're half-assing it, and what they can't fix in post is saved for future sequels. These movies are slapped together with love.
The exception is Jigsaw's games, of course, which are clearly given far more thought than the characters and story put together. They're perverse, but also more inventive by now than figuring out ways for a child's ghost to pop out and screech at people. The Saw series is, by this point, pretty far removed from being scary, but its self-guided torture sessions at least promote visceral shudders. Saw III may be more of the same, but its can-do spirit -- yes, we can make three movies in three years, each making more money than the last -- is engagingly American.
Aka Saw 3.