First-time scripter Leigh Whannell's premise of a malignant moralist who gives his kidnapped victims a chance-slim as it is-to escape their bonds and possibly survive their respective tortures offers considerable promise. Alas, as in everything else, the failure is in the execution, and as script, direction and even make-up are abysmal, it is very difficult to believe a moment of Saw. In addition to writing a cliché-ridden script, Whannell also plays the role of Adam, a shady photographer we first see lying under water with his eyes closed. Turns out he is not dead, but merely preparing for all the dirty chores that lie ahead. He is chained to the corner of a filthy basement in which also lie an anonymous corpse as well as a surgeon named Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), shackled to the opposite wall. According to an ominous recorded voice (this mastermind intones like a laryngitic Orson Welles), Gordon is given a few hours to murder Adam. If Gordon fails to execute this slightly peevish stranger, his own wife and daughter will be killed.

Through a series of clumsy flashbacks, we learn that a homicidal maniac has been slaying people left and right, but always with gamesmanship-letting the victims have at least the possibility of figuring out a way to survive. One actually has, but is too traumatized by the experience to be of much help to the authorities.

Still, in time, police detectives David Tapp (Danny Glover) and Steven Sing (Ken Leung) actually discover the building that holds Adam and Gordon, but unlike every other cop in the country they do not bother calling for backup, and therefore suffer predictably grim consequences. Their demise is hard to swallow. The notion of a physically overwhelming cop like Tapp not destroying physically pathetic suspect Zep Hindle (Michael Emerson) with his first punch is downright ridiculous.

Ironically, Gordon, who is being punished for adultery, is technically innocent, having changed his mind about sinning at the last minute. Why punish him at all? But then, none of the gore or violence here is justified-or, rather, it is impossible to choose between the multiple explanations and various rationalizations the giddy scriptwriter provides. Saw, which never quite justifies its title, is all effect and no substance. Clichés like "If you so much as lay a finger on them, I’ll kill you," abound. Even Gordon’s facial bruises, which make him a dead ringer for Punchinelo, fade, change shape and disappear all within a couple of hours. And if you cannot believe the gore in a gory movie, it is hard to believe that anyone, except the audience, actually suffers.