Snakes on a Plane

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/18/06 02:00:49

"Snakes + plane = kick ass!"
5 stars (Awesome)

I could prattle on about how “Snakes on a Plane” is a sly distillation of everything fans love about B movies, or how its sharp wit and clever understanding of movie clichés lurks hidden under a silly title and a goofy premise ready to be dismissed by many as dumb, throwaway entertainment. But you only want to know one thing first, so here it is: yes, dear friends, “Snakes on a Plane” is fucking awesome.

(With apologies to my grandmother. But seriously, this is “Snakes on a Plane,” people. The movie deserves more than a watered-down “freaking” or “friggin’.”)

The fear, understandably, is that the movie would collapse under its own hype - hype that was built carefully but ingeniously by marketing wizards working for New Line Cinema. This movie rarely ran much in the way of advertising, but it never needed to; “Snakes” has been on the minds of every movie fanatic for months now, no matter if they loved the idea or hated it. Buzz this strong for a non-franchise release is near-impossible to create, yet it happened. Of course, buzz only works to build expectations easily shattered by a mediocre final product.

Ah, but “Snakes” is incredible entertainment, and a hell of a lot smarter than it looks, too. In trying to estimate what this phenomenon of a movie just might wind up being, many film critics and bloggers have tossed around words like “camp” and “intentionally stupid,” yet that misses the point: “Snakes on a Plane” is, quite simply, fun.

And it’s willing to do anything to stay that way. Much has also been discussed about the movie’s re-shoots, in which the cast and filmmakers returned to the set months after filming in order to spice up the movies sex-and-violence quotient, as well as give leading man Samuel L. Jackson the chance to do what he does best: use a certain naughty word the way only Samuel L. Jackson can. Fans online started talking about what they wanted out of a Samuel L. Jackson movie called “Snakes on a Plane,” and wisely, the studio was happy to oblige. Does this mean “Snakes” has been reduced to little more than a Mad Libs movie? Hardly; from the looks of things, it was always a movie about giving fans what they want out of an action-horror-thriller, and if that means going back a few times to finagle a stricter avoidance of the PG-13 rating and a line or two about “these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane,” then who’s to say no?

The plot: In order to knock off a witness against him, a powerful crime lord arranges to have hundreds of poisonous snakes set loose aboard the airplane carrying the witness from Hawaii to Los Angeles.

Now, if you weren’t giggling at the title, and you’re not giggling at the plot, then you are really, really going to hate “Snakes.” Which is fine. But if the trifecta of title, plot, and Samuel L. Jackson does indeed elicit from you a response along the lines of “oh, hell yes,” then there is nothing but joy to be had from the movie that is (say it with me!) “Snakes on a Plane.” (Just repeating the title gets me excited. “Snakes on a Plane!” Oh, hell yes!!)

There are a million ways this movie could have gone all kinds of wrong - the opening scene alone, in which an overacting villain kills a hapless victim while spouting the most inane of dialogue, is straight out of a cheapo direct-to-video actioner. Yet it does not suck. Why? Because everyone involved has seen those cheapo direct-to-video actioners. They know how they work, why they often don’t, what makes ’em fun, what makes ’em not. And so both the screenplay (three writers - David Dalessandro, John Heffernan, and Sebastian Gutierrez - all land some form of script or story credit) and the direction (David R. Ellis, former stunt man and helmer of “Cellular” and “Final Destination 2”) handle the material with the most playful of moods. B movie fans aren’t afraid of a little cheese, and these guys know it.

They also know how to build. For several minutes, “Snakes” looks to be just some anonymous, forgettable gangster flick - then Sam Jackson arrives on the scene (it’s a brilliant introduction if ever there was one), and the whole game changes. Jackson has a handle on the whole thing, how to make this material work despite its obvious silliness. He revs up the cool and, although he never stops to wink at us, lets us all know that it’s all good.

We turn then to typical disaster movie fare: a long line of colorful characters are introduced as they board the plane, while we have fun putting together a mental checklist of who’s sure to die, who we hope to see live, and who we can’t wait to see eat it big time. Here, the movie lightens up. We get comic relief in the form of David Koechner, who plays the world’s so-most-awesomest co-pilot, and Kenan Thompson, as bodyguard to a conceited, germaphobic rap star; we get a little sex in the form of a couple of generic young hardbodies; we get to kick back, relax, settle in. And all the while, there are these cutaway shots to a crate full of snakes, and a timer, and we lean in and get giddy in our anticipation.

So far, what we’ve seen is a better-than-expected dopey action flick that plays up all the right clichés. The pre-snakes “Snakes” is a good, fun, but not great, movie.

Then the snakes show up.

What follows is what I can honestly say without threat of hyperbole as one of the very best times I’ve ever had in a movie theater. No kidding. The snakes are loose, and it’s not one or two, but hundreds of these things. They’re everywhere, and they’re killing everything in sight. Holy crap! Look how that guy died! Oh no, it’s about to get that lady! Ooooooh, that hurts! Ugh, that’s gross! It’s a cinematic frenzy that pushes all the right buttons and plays all the right notes; we scream, we laugh, we scream again, we jump, and we scream a whole lot more. This is crazed chaos at its best.

Sure, there are moments that let up every now and then, chances for both characters and audience to catch their breath, but these are secondary. “Snakes” is all about the thrills, and the thrills are everywhere. This is the kind of movie that makes you want to scream and shout and snicker and, most of all, cheer at the brazenness of it all. “Snakes on a Plane” has no conceits about what it is, and it doesn’t care if you think it’s stupid. It’s going to show us a whole lot of snakes on a whole lot of plane, and here’s hoping you thrill along to it all.

There’s a certain vibe to the script that strikes me as both mischievous and brilliant, and I fear that in all the discussion about just how much dumb fun “Snakes” can be, this angle might go overlooked. I can’t vouch for how it was really written, but I’d like to think that it came about by a couple of guys sitting around one night talking about all the stuff they’d love to see in one super-movie, and then they got some other guys to come in and throw in all the stuff they’ve seen in all those other movies, and the whole thing was peppered with cries of “yes!” I can see it now: “Dude, we have to have the scene where the one stewardess talks about how she passed up a chance at retirement for one more flight!” and “Aw, man, we need to have, like, green snake-vision!” and “We cannot make this movie unless we have a kickboxing champion on this plane.”

In this sense, “Snakes on a Plane” is kind of the ultimate B movie, throwing in everything (the kickboxing champ is the kitchen sink, I suppose) that has ever made its way into any silly piece of over-the-top entertainment.

It is, then, Ellis’ on-set sensibilities, combined with a cast eager to go along for the endearingly ridiculous ride, that makes this potential mess into an incredible piece of genre cinema. This isn’t so much a movie as it is a party, with Ellis as your host, delicately balancing the laughs and frights with expert skill, eagerly inviting you with every scene to crack wise with your friends. (It’s such a party that the movie even ends with a music video for the theme song. Which, surprisingly, turns out to be a great idea.)

Now, I knew going in that this would be my kind of movie, but I’m still a bit surprised at just how well this damn thing works. This is more than a high concept and some dumb fun - it’s an unexpectedly exceptional celebration of the B movie in all its forms. It’s corny, cheesy, illogical, ridiculous, formulaic, and downright idiotic as hell. But it’s also scary, funny, and absolutely genius in its execution. It’s everything we’ve always loved about having a good time at the multiplex. It’s a wild ride on celluloid. It’s an event unto itself. It’s “Snakes on a Plane.” Oh, hell yes.

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