Snakes on a Plane

OK, my friend, I ain’t suckin’ no poison out of that.

OK, my friend, I ain’t suckin’ no poison out of that.

Rated 3.0

In a recent article about the Snakes on a Plane “phenomenon,” Entertainment Weekly repeated a story that must surely be a bald-faced whopper designed to keep the movie’s buzz going. The bigwigs at New Line Cinema, the story goes, decided at one point to change the title to Pacific Air 121 for fear that the movie wouldn’t be taken seriously enough. Only the loud protests of star Samuel L. Jackson, insisting that he signed on because the title was Snakes on a Plane, kept the change from becoming permanent.

Does anybody buy this? Jackson himself has confirmed it, but the story still doesn’t ring true. Any producer in Hollywood, I suspect, would be happy to release a movie titled Mother Teresa Screwing if he had the footage to back it up. Some of them might try it even if they didn’t.

But that’s part of the back story that New Line is using to sell Snakes on a Plane; the movie has been generating buzz for a year or more, ever since the title was announced and caught the fancy of Internet denizens. The Web chatters even supposedly supplied the movie’s most anticipated line, spoken by Jackson near the climax and inserted after principal shooting, when additional scenes were added to “intensify” the film and goose its rating from PG-13 up (or down) to R.

Snakes on a Plane, in fact, has relied heavily on Internet buzz to build its opening-weekend box office—to the exclusion of advance screenings for press or word-of-mouth audiences. Will the strategy work? Well, by Sunday night the movie had taken in $15.2 million—a pretty good opening, especially given its $30 million budget, though it’s got a way to go before even that modest investment pays off.

But what about the movie itself? Actually, it’s not so bad. It is every bit as cheesy as its title, and to go along with the setup you have to swallow a lot (think of a python swallowing a human being—and, yes, that happens in the movie), but after that it’s a pretty entertaining ride.

Jackson plays tough, no-nonsense FBI agent Neville Flynn, escorting one Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) from Honolulu to Los Angeles after Jones witnessed a gangland hit on an L.A. prosecutor. Flynn and his partner commandeer the entire first-class cabin of the plane to keep their witness safe.

But somehow the gang lord, Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson), finds out what flight they’re on, and at the last minute he and his minions manage to smuggle aboard a crate full of every variety of venomous or deadly snake, timed to open mid-flight. For good measure, the passengers’ farewell leis have been sprayed with pheromones calculated to drive the snakes wild. How Kim got the snakes from L.A. to Hawaii in the first place and why the snakes don’t all kill each other before the crate opens are two questions that the script (by John Heffernan, Sebastian Gutierrez and David Dalessandro) blithely declines to answer.

Gulp. OK, premise duly swallowed. At the 50-minute mark, give or take, the crate blows open, and the snakes slither out in all directions, some heading for the passenger compartment, others heading into the cockpit and still others attacking the plane’s electronics.

From there, director David R. Ellis takes over and gives the movie the efficient, effective treatment he brought to Cellular, the tidy little thriller he directed two years ago. All the expected setups ensue. Couple having sex in a lavatory? Enjoy it, kids; it’s gonna be your last. Passenger urinating in another lavatory? Adios, muchacho. Snooty British guy throwing the nice lady’s Chihuahua to the snakes to save himself? Get ready for payback.

Ellis keeps the action fast and frantic, Jackson barks his lines with relish, and Julianna Margulies, as the beleaguered head flight attendant, even delivers that hoary old line “Does anybody here know how to fly a plane?” with surprising aplomb.

And that famous Internet-supplied line of Jackson’s? You’ll probably know it when you hear it. Actually, the best line in the movie isn’t that one; it’s what Jackson says next. But I won’t give it away; let’s leave Snakes on a Plane at least that one surprise.