Monday, November 3, 2008


Although your skin may crawl at the sight of giant snakes in director Dwight H. Little's new movie "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid" (** out of ****),this shallow, uneven, in-name-only sequel to "Anaconda" (1997), with an unknown cast leaves a lot to be desired as a blood-curdling creature feature. Whereas "Anaconda" with Jennifer Lopez pitted our protagonists against a pair of predatory anacondas, "Anacondas" raises the stakes considerably with dozens of dinosaur-sized anacondas surrounding our heroes in the middle of anaconda mating season. The quiet moments stand out as the eeriest in this suspenseful but anti-climatic thriller. As our intrepid heroes wade through the watery reaches of the jungle, the camera hovers overhead to give audiences a bird's eye view of the characters sloshing along blissfully unaware of the humongous coils of an anaconda as it glides silently underwater around them without creating a ripple on the surface. "Anacondas" doesn't get any better than this elaborately-staged long shot. Unfortunately, a slipshod screenplay credited to four writers and second-rate, computer-generated, special effects shots of the reptiles rips the fangs out of "Anacondas." Mind you, the original "Anaconda" suffered from shoddy special effects snake shots, too, but the name brand cast more than compensated for the cheesy snakes, especially Jennifer Lopez in a wet tank top and Jon Voight as a hammy villain. While "Anaconda's" anacondas switched between the spurious CGI snakes in the long shots and believable animatronic puppets in the close-ups, the snakes in "Anacondas" are totally computer generated and appear anything but intimidating. Incredibly, the two snakes in "Anaconda" possessed more personality than the unknown number of synthetic anacondas slithering around in "Anacondas" with nothing to distinguish one snake from another. Scenarists John Claflin and Daniel Zelman of TV's "They Nest' and Michael Miner and Edward Neumeier of "RoboCop" do a poor job of laying out the ground rules in this battle between humans and snakes. One minute we're told anacondas with a man-sized snack in their bellies lay off hunting, then the next minute we learn that these giant, Alaskan pipeline-sized anacondas chuck up their victims then continue to hunt. The first-half of this lean, efficient, but predictable 97-minute, PG-13-rated serpent saga succeeds in setting up our heroes' objectives and obstacles. The second-half doesn't pay off the creepy suspense, however, with enough spine-tingling scenes of snakes making supper out of humans.

A scientific expedition of multi-racial, stereotypical characters led by an urbane British scientist, Dr. Jack Byron (Matthew Marsden of "Black Hawk Down"), and his entrepreneurial right-hand man Gordon Mitchell (Morris Chestnut of "Half-Past Dead") plunge into the wild jungles of Borneo to retrieve a rare bloom, the Blood Orchid, that they plan to use to manufacture the "pharmaceutical equivalent of the fountain of youth." The corporate CEO's eyes light up when Mitchell predicts, "It'll be bigger than Viagra!" Unluckily, this unusual flower blossoms only once every seven years, and they are in the middle of the two-week blooming season when Byron and Mitchell launch their expedition. Director Dwight Little and his quartet of scenarists do an effective job of setting the plot into motion and saddling our heroes with problems galore. Anyway, when our heroes arrive in Borneo, the rainy season sets in, and nobody wants to ferry them into the rain-swollen jungle. Byron and Mitchell find an American expatriate, Bill Johnson (virile Johnny Messner of "Operation Delta Force 4: Deep Fault"), with a barge who will accommodate them if they can pay him $25-thousand dollars. One look at Johnson's ramshackle boat, and you'd swear you stumbled onto "The African Queen." During the scenic trip down river, pharmaceutical big-wig Gail Stern (Salli Richardson of "Biker Boyz") falls overboard and a ravenous crocodile attacks her. Johnson's Tarzan-style fight with the croc qualifies as the most exciting action sequence in the entire movie. Later, Johnson's boat is caught in an undercurrent and pulled over a waterfall. Little gets more mileage out of Johnson's boat crashing over the waterfall than he does in the struggle with the snakes. Of course, while all this is going on, the anacondas circle, flickering their tongues in anticipation. Set afoot with no weapons and a slim chance of survival, our woebegone heroes must brave the jungle and hope they don't get eaten. Along the way, they discover to their horror that the diabolical anacondas have been feeding on the Blood Orchid and the flower has made their monster-sized man-eaters.

Although "Anacondas" takes place in Borneo, Borneo has no anacondas, only pythons. In other words, Little and his four writers have exercised considerable dramatic license in piecing together this half-baked, herpetological hokum. Again, the second half finds our heroes trying to elude the snakes after they turn against each other over whether they should still try to retrieve the Orchid. Cinematically, the snakes lack menace, and they strike so swiftly that they appear cartoonish, undercutting the dramatic impact of the death scenes. The writers never reveal how many snakes that our heroes are up against, so we have no idea if they are whittling down the opposition. A minor surprise or two with regard to who gets chomped first and who escapes being snake bait cannot redeem the uninspired last half-hour. The MPPA PG-13 rating clearly takes a toll on the snake munching scenes. Despite the erratic plotting and the poor SPFX, veteran director Dwight H. Little (whose screen credits include "Halloween 4," "Free Willy 2," "Rapid Fire," "Marked For Death," and "Murder At 1600") delivers lots of mild jolts and atmospheric moments. Anybody who reacts to the least provocation of terror will find the presence of a small monkey in the cast particularly troubling. Like a cat in a haunted house, this screaming monkey jumps into somebody's lap when they least suspect it and all hell breaks loose momentarily. Altogether, a fair potboiler from start to finish, "Anacondas" fails to pay-off an enthralling first half with its counterfeit snakes and its formulaic plot.

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