Is there another screen actor today who engenders as much audience goodwill as Samuel L.Jackson? When he first appeared onscreen, about ten minutes into Snakes on a Plane, the opening-night crowd at Mann’s Chinese theater — complete with four young men in matching black suits and afro wigs styled after the star’s Pulp Fiction persona — roared with approval, confident that Jackson was about to give somebody (or something) a good ass-whippin’, or at least lend sarcastic breath to some instantly quotable catchphrase. The reaction had been only slightly less thunderous when Jackson’s name appeared in the opening titles, and if a movie — nay, a cultural event — called Snakes on a Plane is perhaps not where this classically-trained actor imagined he’d find himself at the age of 57, who is to deny him (or us) the pleasure of an entire movie tailored to his potent, inimitable Sam Jackson-ness? Were the movie called Sam on a Plane, I doubt it would be any less hotly anticipated.
At a moment when Hollywood movies and their marketing campaigns are becoming ever less distinct entities, there is no happier celebrant of that blur than Snakes. And just as it has been futile, for well over a year now, to draw any distinctions between the movie itself and the cult of fandom that has grown up around it, it would be a fool’s task to try and evaluate the movie critically apart from the experience of seeing it with a sold-out, thrilled-to-the-gills audience. So suffice it to say that at 10:15 p.m. on Thursday night, in one of two theaters simultaneously screening the movie at the Chinese, Snakes was the most exuberantly trashy delight of this summer movie season — or last. I make no claims for how the film will play three or four weeks from now, in the basement of some overcrowded multiplex: Try that at your own peril. But I do suspect Snakes will live on as a home entertainment staple for decades to come, where it will surely reward repeat viewings made under the influence of alcohol or other performance-enhancing substances.
Snakes on a Plane is so fondly nostalgic for a bygone filmmaking era that you shed a tear for the fact that there aren’t any crumbling Times Square grindhouses left in which to show it. (Seeing it in the state-of-art environs of the Chinese feels altogether too classy.) Directed by David R. Ellis from a script by John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez, it’s the closest thing to a straightforward exploitation picture Hollywood has churned out in the years since Roger Corman abandoned the theatrical market, Charles Bronson went into retirement and Cannon Films spiraled into bankruptcy. Hunger for such a movie is hardly accidental. Snakes arrives as the much-needed antidote to the ever more self-important summer blockbusters with their ballooning budgets and poisonously long running times: Watching it, you can practically hear the collective sigh of relief when people realize that Ellis and company have no greater imperative than to deliver one down-and-dirty jolt after another. And I stress the down-and-dirty part. After internet chatter about Snakes wisely dissuaded them from striving to stay within the boundaries of a PG-13 rating, New Line and Ellis have pushed the R-rated pedal to the metal, delivering a movie in which the eponymous reptiles — all hyped up from inhaling pheromone-scented leis — show a special affinity for their victims’ private parts and other bodily extremities. (What, after all, would any good exploitation movie be without its share of bare, jiggling breasts?)
Set almost entirely during a red-eye flight from Hawaii to L.A. on a 747 jumbo jet that looks like it hasn’t been airborne since the ‘70s, Snakes is decked out with a cast of passengers (including a Beverly Hills princess with her chihuahua in tow and a stuck-up Brit who mutters “fucking Americans” under his breath) and crew (a casually chauvinistic copilot, an elderly flight attendant making one last “tour of duty”) who would do any Airport movie proud. And yes, in case you were wondering, the stewardess (Julianna Margulies) does, at one point, end up flying the plane. There is a plot , lest I forget, about a young surfer dude (Wolf Creek star Nathan Phillips) who witnesses a mob hit and is now being escorted, by Jackson’s super-cool FBI agent, to testify in L.A. But let’s face it: What you really want to know about are the dozens of exotic pythons and cobras and boas — a mix of the real thing and cartoonishly exaggerated CGI — stuffed into the cargo hold by said mob goons and destined to give a new meaning to in-flight entertainment. Well, watching them wriggle their way up cabin and down (sometimes with the benefit of green-tinted snake-o-vision), striking at anything and everything that moves — and yes, in one scene, devouring prey whole — is senseless fun, as is the movie’s inevitable, retributory second half — When Sam Attacks.
Snakes on a Plane never tips entirely over into self-parody in the way of the greatest scary-funny creep-out movies — namely, Joe Dante’s Piranha and Gremlins. And it’s possible to leave the theater wondering just howmuch the filmmakers really were in on their own jokes. But chances are you’ll be too giddy to think about anything other than a second helping. Tarantulas on a Train? Scorpions on a Sailboat perhaps? Fear not, the internet is already abuzz.
SNAKES ON A PLANE | Directed by DAVID R. ELLIS | Written by JOHN HEFFERNAN and SEBASTIAN GUTIERREZ, based on a story by DAVID DALESSANDRO and HEFFERNAN | Produced by GARY LEVINSOHN, DON GRANGER and CRAIG BERENSON | Release by New Line Cinema | Citywide