And the Joey Tribiani Award for Best Daytime Soap Opera Performance by an Actor in a Feature Film goes to . . . JOHNNY MESSNER.
With his over-the-top portrayal of a riverboat captain—one which plays like a near caricature of Bogart's "African Queen" skipper and every stoic tough guy you've ever seen on-screen—Messner beats out comic-relief goofus Eugene Bird for cardboard character honors in "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid." Bird plays Cole Burris, a spooked little guy who screams more than anyone else aboard this ill-fated mission.
But perhaps it's not fair to judge the actors so harshly. This is a script that gives you Captain Bill Johnson (Messner) saying stuff like "Saddle up," and (speaking about his boat) "She may be ugly, but she puts out," or "Everything gets eaten out here, it's a jungle." How can you possibly say those lines without sounding like you just crawled off the set of "Days of Our Lives"? Then there's the whole logic thing. When the boat suddenly has a problem with its steering, Capt. Bill explains, "Rudder's jammed," and then proceeds to mess with the engine, which, of course, is separate from the steering. But you know what? For a B-movie thriller, this one isn't half bad. Those clichéd performances aside, the rest of the acting is pretty decent, and the location Fiji scenery is gorgeous—even with pouring rain and the sky looking like it should be bathing London in its usual grey light.
Suspensemeister Stephen King once described the dynamics of a thriller as a simple equation: "It's here! No it's not. It's here! No it's not. It's AHHHHHHHHHHHH!" To this formula, "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid" stays reasonably true. The fun with a film like this is betting on who gets it first, second, and so on. As soon as Cole made his appearance, my wife and I turned to each other and said, simultaneously, "Snake bait!" Then, of course, there are the characters you hope will get eaten by these giant water snakes. These carnivorous critters have somehow managed to mutate past a normal snake's lifetime (and growth cycle) by eating rare blood orchids that only grow in a remote section of jungle in Borneo. And where the flowers grow, the snakes gather almost ritually in a giant mating ball. It's the kind of scenario Indiana Jones would have absolutely hated.
Director Dwight Little sets the tone and level of suspense early. The film opens with a familiar (and yes, hokey) scene in the jungle where indigenous hunters tracking tiger are themselves beset by a giant creature that all but flies through the jungle at them with computer-game speed. That's no coincidence, of course, since the snakes for this film are CGI and as big as the insect and animal mutants from all those 1950s A-bomb test flicks. We're not just talking about an unusually (but still believably) large "Jaws" creature here. Dale Duguid does an okay job with the visual effects, but the snakes look about as real as some of the creatures you'd see in a Harry Potter flick—monsters of the fantastic order. You'll also wonder how come these normally slow-moving water-dwellers are able to virtually fly through the air at times in stylized action. Crouching Anacondas, Hidden Danger.
On the other side of the world in a board room of a pharmaceutical company, a save-the-firm pitch involves sending a crew to get some of these Fountain of Youth flowers they've somehow learned about. And so two doctors with grad students and company reps in tow end up in Borneo trying to hire a boat during the rainy season. No one will take them upriver except for this legendary do-anything-for-money captain and his Asian mate, Tran (Karl Yune). Both of the doctors are pretty cheeky, the kind that would (and do) hit on their students and former students. Dr. Jack Byron (Matthew Marsden) is also a Brit with a bad case of the Ahabs. He's driven to get these flowers like none of the others, including his assistant Sam Rogers (KaDee Strickland) and colleague Dr. Ben Douglas (Nicholas Gonzalez). Company rep Gail Stern (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) tries to look out for the firm's interests, with Gordon Mitchell (Morris Chestnut) and Cole Burris rounding out this kind of Noah's ark cast of castaways: two rivermen, two doctors, two women, and two African-American males. Needless to say, with a chug-a-lug boat named the Bloody Mary, trouble's not far away.
Though there are quite a few AHHHHHHHHHHs that you can see coming a mile away (and this, of course, is major flaw), Little does an otherwise credible job of maintaining tension and keeping the audience guessing—not just when the snakes will strike or who will get eaten, but IF someone will bite the big one (or would that be, get bitten by the big one?). If you let it, this film will have you on the edge of your seat, and that's really the main point of a genre flick that doesn't pretend to be character-driven, isn't it? Is it one of the best of its kind? No. It's far too predictable and cheesy. But I've also seen worse.
Strickland's character has the biggest arc, and she makes the most of it. Whether it's fending off unwanted advances, sparring with the captain, or fighting one of the giant snakes, she manages to keep it semi-real when the script sometimes works against that. Same with Chestnut, whose character is among the most likeable and believable. And since I've knocked the script for dialogue, let me add that there are some pleasant surprises as well. When the characters climb straight up a mountain in the humid jungle, one of them complains, "It's like doing the stairmaster in a sauna." Another responds, "Yeah, I might die of heat stroke, but I'll have a nice tight ass." Is it better than the first "Anaconda"? You readers will have to answer that for yourselves. Like Indiana Jones, I try to stay clear of snakes. This one just happened to slither onto my reviewing table. And did I have a "slithering good time" as the DVD teaser suggests? If that means, is the film "a little suspenseful but so hokey it makes you laugh in spots," then the answer is, YES-SSSSSSSSSSSS.
There options are 1.33:1 pan and scan or 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, both mastered in High Definition and looking sharp even in dreary outdoor lighting, darkness, or challenging cave/tunnel sequences. The picture is quite good—sharp delineation and good color saturation, despite the largely overcast and dark skies—which is nice, because the footage of even gloomy Fiji is a real bonus for the adventure-minded.
The soundtrack is presented in English and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with English and French subtitles. When rain pours down especially you can hear the full surround-sound effect, which is distributed nicely across all the speakers.
Call me crazy, but I really appreciate it when a studio has a firm sense of where an offering sits in the firmament of filmdom. Too often we see two-star movies treated like classics, with more extras than "Casablanca." I think Columbia TriStar has hit it just right this time, providing a short but revealing "making of" featurette" and an equally brief number of deleted scenes. I'm more than happy to watch a short feature telling me a little about the challenges of filming on location in Fiji with CGI snakes, and I don't need blow-by-blow details or commentaries that blow this out of proportion. This one is relatively short and average, meaning it's got some decent behind-the-scenes footage and explanations of how they did the slitherins. If you want more, check out a conversation I had with one of the film's stars, KaDee Strickland.
No one goes to see a film like this to get a better handle on the human condition or to learn about an issue of relevance. People go to get their hearts pumping, not their brains thumping. And aside from performances rendered cardboard by a clichéd script, "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid" follows the creature-feature formula closely enough to provide some unintentional laughs and genuine bursts of adrenalin, however hokey it gets and however Harry Potterish the snakes.