Monday, April 25, 2011

Don't Be Fooled By the Snake That She's Got: "Anaconda" (1997)

From its bizarre cast to its iffy effects, "Anaconda" has "cult film" written all over it.

A film crew run by Terri (Jennifer Lopez) and her professor boyfriend Steven (Eric Stoltz) are departing on a boat into the Amazon River Basin, trying to shoot a documentary on a lost tribe. Along for the trip is cameraman Danny (Ice Cube), sound techs Gary (Owen Wilson) and Denise (Kari Wuhrer), conceited narrator Warren (Jonathan Hyde), and shifty captain Mateo (Vincent Castellanos). Mateo seems to know Paul (Jon Voight), an unlikely Paraguayan priest/snake hunter who the film crew picks up and who knows how to find the lost tribe. Now, we already know there is one big snake shadowing the crew, and you know its mean if it can kill Danny Trejo in the opening minutes of the film. Sure enough, the snake finds many opportunities, and meals, as it gets our heroes one by one.

Released over a decade ago, "Anaconda" has enjoyed a cult following. The cast is mostly recognizable A-list (now), running and screaming in a pulpy B flick. I even remember Oscar buzz around Voight, who wrestles, subdues, and chews every second of every scene that he is in. The film's reputation precedes it: Stoltz really is unconscious for half of the film, and the climax features one of the most memorable vomiting scenes in film history.

While the cast is fine (and I keep waiting for that one role that will turn Ice Cube into the big time successful action star I know he can be), the film's winking and knowing attitude gets in the way. I am not sure if the actors knew this was light stuff. Llosa's direction is great, and the river scenes are a cinematographer's dream, but only Voight seemed to be clued in to the campy possibilities of the screenplay.

The animatronic effects are a hundred times better than the computer effects (a huge stumbling block), and unlike "Jaws," the screenwriters dumb down to the audience, looking for any excuse to put people in harm's way. Eventually, this turned me off.

"Anaconda" might be the best of the big snake genre, considering its lousy in-name-only sequel, and any ten minutes of the crap Sci-Fi Channel feeds us (and I sat through all of "Boa vs. Python"), but here, the hype is more fun than the film. (* * *) out of five stars.