Third time’s almost a charm

“Saw III”

Lions Gate Films

Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

Written by James Wan and Leigh Whannell

Starring: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Angus Macfadyen, Bahar Soomekh, Dina Meyer and Donnie Wahlberg

Rated R/107 minutes

Opened Oct. 27, 2006

Two-and-a-half out of four stars

“Saw III” is the best in the series, but that’s sort of like saying I prefer one bloodied, dismembered corpse over another. Why do I even bother writing my opinion anyway? Such an endorsement will never convert those who stay away from these movies the way some people stay away from brussels sprouts (with a similar gag response), and those who want to see “Saw III” aren’t waiting to hear from the critics.

There isn’t some black-eyed, spiky-haired, nose-riveted teenager sitting at home thinking to himself, “Boy, I’d really like to see ‘Saw III,’ but let’s see what that guy in Newsweek thought of it first?”

No, the purpose of a critic is null and void here. Horror movies will make their quick buck over opening weekend and then be quickly forgotten. Critical consensus plays no factor. The studio will make enough movie to turn a profit and finance the production of the inevitable “Saw IV,” in which Jigsaw gets a sense of humor and rigs up a machine that tickles his victims to death.

I’ll say this much: The new “Saw” movie, written by James Wan and Leigh Whannell (the sadomasochists who introduced the series), at least tries to bring a certain level of cleverness to the story and insight to its characters that are regularly missing from movies in which screaming people are tortured.

Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), the holier-than-thou killer from parts one and two, has taken on an apprentice named Amanda (Shawnee Smith), the only person to survive his life-or-death games of ironic punishment. Their relationship is interesting in a perverse, teacher/student, dominator/dominated way, even though it is thin at best.

Jigsaw is dying and he’s had Amanda capture a doctor named Lynn (Bahar Soomekh), bring her to his hideout and force her to keep him alive. The catch: The explosives strapped around Lynn’s head will detonate if Jigsaw’s heart beat flat-lines. I hate it when that happens.

Meanwhile, a seemingly unimportant man named Jeff (Angus Macfadyen) is stuck in one of Jigsaw’s cruel games-this one’s designed to help Jeff purge the anger and grief that have consumed him after the death of his son at the hands of a drunken driver. Isn’t that sweet of Jigsaw? He really does care. Of course, his game involves all sorts of helpless victims, spinning blades and what happens when those two ingredients are brought together, so I’d say his therapeutic methods are?questionable.

I appreciate how “Saw III” follows only a few characters instead of the dozen or so we hardly got to know in the last installment. That focus allows for more emotional involvement, if not more coherence. The obligatory twists at the end-in which the unbeatable Jigsaw reveals who was really being tested and why-fly at us like bats out of hell. How he could have counted on certain things happening for sure and so far in advance is not plausible, but, hey, he’s Jigsaw.

We are but his puzzle pieces.

“M’yes, my apprentice, I want you to affix a blind snake to a deaf man’s face and bite the snake.” Tobin Bell disconcerts his young padawan in “Saw 3.”