Principal Cast : Jennifer Lopez, Jon Voight, Ice Cube, Eric Stoltz, Jonathan Hyde, Owen Wilson, Kari Wuhrer, Vincent Castellanos, Danny Trejo.
Synopsis: A “National Geographic” film crew is taken hostage by an insane hunter, who forces them along on his quest to capture the world’s largest – and deadliest – snake.
Trashy beyond belief, the late 90’s were a goldmine for glossy, slick, inordinately stupid creature features that delivered so-bad-it’s-good crowd-pleasing cheese and I’m kinda sad they don’t make ’em like this any more. Films such as Arachnophobia, Peter Hyams’ The Relic, Stephen Sommers’ Deep Rising, the incredibly awful Species franchise, Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic, and Luis Llosa’s Anaconda, starring Jennifer Lopez and Ice Cube, cut a swathe of tremulous monster-movie fun through the pre-millennial zeitgeist, with the latter perhaps being the most fondly remembered of those I’ve just listed. Lopez and Cube, who co-star alongside quite the ensemble cast including Owen Wilson and Eric Stoltz and Jonathan Hyde, are no match for the hammiest, scenery-chewing villain of the decade in Jon Voight, who absolutely has a whale of a time starring as a sadistic snake hunter lurking in the Amazon jungle, hoping to catch one of the titular leviathans and make his fortune. A mix of tropes, clichés and mindless dialogue, together with Llosa’s magnificently bawdy direction, make Anaconda a hell of a great time with the silliest of stories; despite being a film of incredible stupidity, it’s just so much fun.
Documentary filmmaker Terri Flores (Lopez) and her team travel with Dr Carle (Stoltz) up the Amazon River to locate a mysterious jungle tribe, aboard a boat captained by the duplicitous Mateo (Vincent Castellanos), when they run into a stranded snake catcher, Paul Serone (Voight). Serone is attempting to capture an anaconda, a terrifying enormous python endemic to the Amazon, and although initially willing to accommodate the ship’s crews mission eventually turns the tables on them to achieve his own plans. Terri’s team, including cameraman Danny (Ice Cube), production manager Denise (Kari Wuhrer), sound engineer Gary (Owen Wilson) and on-screen presenter Warren Westbridge (Jonathan Hyde), are all put directly in harms way as Sarone lures the deadly pythons into range and uses them all as live bait.
Sniper and The Specialist director Llosa returned to his South American roots with Anaconda, having ventured into the jungle previously with films such as Eight Hundred Leagues Down The Amazon and the Sandra Bullock-sleeper Fire On The Amazon. Anaconda is pure exploitation cinema – there’s very few legitimately redeeming facets to this film – and deeply, enthusiastically understands just how stupid it is, going for broke with delirious kills, laughable characters and scenarios, and preposterous horror tropes so “holy shit!” cool it’s impossible not to watch this without a giant shit-eating grin on your face the whole time. Co-written by the pair behind Top Gun and The Secret to My Success, Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr, as well as an on-debut writer in Hans Bauer, Anaconda lacks any real ingenuity or freshness when it can simply steal from the subgenre’s storied Hollywood history through decades past: Anaconda has DNA elements recognisable in Jaws, Alien, and even Creature From The Black Lagoon, and while this film apes its far superior ancestors with a degree of effortful competence, there’s just enough cladding layered across the framework to make this one stand on its own.
The film is eerily reminiscent of both Deep Blue Sea and Deep Rising particularly, and not just for the fact that it’s primarily set in a watery locale. That foreboding sense of jeopardy is offset by a laughably silly pre-title opening with Danny Trejo being attacked on a boat (a boat we would see about fifteen minutes later washed up on the riverbank) and the film’s guilelessness generating any tension is lost amid whirling camerawork and Randy Edelman’s ponderous musical accompaniment that lacks any subtlety whatsoever. Truth be told, Anaconda is astoundingly dumb, but that’s why it works so well. If you view the film as a parody of the very genre it exists within, you’ll enjoy it even more. Llosa’s whiplash direction and the wonderful use of both practical and digital technology to give the titular monsters their form on-screen is hilarious and remarkably decent given the film’s vintage – some of the anaconda VFX are laughably poor but Llosa’s decision to minimise this and focus on the surprisingly decent on-camera puppet used for the snakes gives the film a sense of legitimacy and realism many of its contemporaries lack utterly (looking at you, Deep Rising). Llosa understands schlock horror, how to build a scene and atmosphere, and his editing and direction of some of the film’s exhaustive anaconda-attack sequences are really quite good, but you’d never mistake this film for a masterpiece.
The ensemble cast is… well, a cast this good flatters a script and premise this poor. Jennifer Lopez was still searching for her breakout screen role following her lead debut in Selena (1997), and with both Anaconda and Soderberg’s Out of Sight (with George Clooney) she soon established herself as a genuine screen star, Anaconda simply demands she look good in tight, wet clothing, and asks very little of her as an actress by way of emotion. Ice Cube steps from the ‘hood right into the Amazon as the world’s most deadpan cameraman, Eric Stoltz spends a great deal of the film off-screen after being injured, Owen Wilson’s surfer-dude aww-shucks-iness is in full flight in one of his early roles, and Jumanji’s Jonathan Hyde hamms it up superbly as the toffiest of toffy naturalists – David Attenborough he ain’t. It’s quite a lot of fun watching these actors in these embryonic appearances before they would all go on to become household names outside of the US.
But they aren’t even the best part. No, the best thing about Anaconda is watching Jon Voight absolutely own everyone else on the screen. He chews the scenery like a madman – his performance earned a litany of “Worst Of” nominations, you wouldn’t read about it! – and spits out rancid dialogue like he’s delivering Shakespeare, despite a cruddy South American accent (at least I think that’s what it was) and sweaty facial prosthetics. Sarone is a character so over-the-top, so unbelievably without compunction, compared to everything else in the bananas movie he has to be in order to stand out as much as he does. Voight also gets to deliver one of the screen’s best ever winks (you’ll know it when you see it – my cinema audience back in the day absolutely howled with laughter) and also one of the grossest ever deaths; Anaconda would be half the film it is without Voight’s inescapably tawdry performance.
I’ve often used the phrase “junk food cinema” to describe films of Anaconda’s unique flair and audience satisfaction. As a film it beggars belief in just how risible the script, plot and most of the performances are and yet it all somehow just works. For not a single second do you believe in what’s going on, or to whom it’s all happening, but in that tremendous “just go with it” brain-at-the-door silliness of Hollywood’s dumbest hits Anaconda snares you in its grip and refuses to let go. Lascivious, exploitative to a fault, and arguably the dumbest film of the year, the joy of watching Anaconda on the largest screen possible, with the loudest sound system you can muster, is a treat you won’t soon forget. Monster movies are designed to tap into our base fears of the unknown, and given how relatively few of us have ever been to the Amazon basin there’s a real tapping into that primal fear that underlines a lot of what makes this movie great to watch. Terrible life decisions from our various characters on screen go a long way to Anaconda’s delightfully stupid freewheeling monster-mash aesthetic, and watching the heroes battle nature (and the bad guys succumb to it) is cathartic in so many ways. Of any, this film indeed epitomises “junk food cinema”. Do yourself a favour; grab the biggest bucket of popcorn you can, a bunch of drunk friends, and satisfy your baser urges with Anaconda – you won’t regret it.