In Snakes on a Plane, Samuel L. Jackson stars as FBI agent Neville Flynn, a man who must contend with, as you must know by now, a commercial jetliner filled with 300 or so venomous vipers that have been pumped up with pheromones, making them ''hyper-aggressive.'' This means they'll lunge for any human body part that happens to be dangling in front of them -- a hand, a breast, a penis. The slithering beasties have been smuggled onto the plane by notorious mob boss Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson), in an effort to kill Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips), a young surfer dude who witnessed Eddie practicing his baseball bat technique on someone's head. Agent Flynn must deliver the young man safely from Hawaii to L.A. for the trial. But those darn snakes, sprung from the cargo hold by a time-release mechanism, spoil the flight, creating much havoc among an increasingly dwindling passenger list.
Directed by David R. Ellis (Cellular), the movie isn't just mediocre -- it's profoundly mediocre. Evoking a B-movie playfulness, it's hard to take very seriously. Aside from a few well-timed jolts (you try not to jump when a snake suddenly lunges out of an air sickness bag), Snakes on a Plane is pretty much suspense-free, filled with archetypes who will either a) die or b) not die. The sport comes in guessing which passenger will make it to the end, though it's a fairly safe bet early on that the snooty and impossibly crabby businessman, the drunk fat lady, and the teenaged couple joining the mile-high-club in the plane's lavatory will reach their final destination long before the plane attempts an emergency landing.
Where's the venom? Jackson
Over the past several months, the internet buzz for Snakes on a Plane has been so formidable and influential that director Ellis went back and increased the gore factor (though the film is almost bloodless). At the behest of fans, he even inserted a profanity-drenched moment of dialogue recited by Jackson's character in a fit of frustrated fury. The line feels like an insert -- it comes out of nowhere and looks like it was shot against a wall in someone's living room -- proving that it's not necessarily a good idea to let fans dictate what you should include in your movie.
Samuel L. Jackson fans might be disappointed by his less-than-engaging, oddly restrained performance. The histrionics-addicted actor was far more over-the-top in the ''serious'' drama Freedomland. Here, he just runs around, exuding authority, trying to make sure his prime witness doesn't become a first class meal option. ''If you die,'' he barks to Sean, ''then all of this was for nothing!''
The rest of the cast is best viewed as snake chow, the one exception being Julianna Margulies, whose post-E.R. career has been the cinematic equivalent of rubbish. The sight of her wielding an axe at a rattle snake (or was it a cobra?) and chopping away until the creature is a pile of sushi makes you wonder if she shouldn't consider a position at Benihana.
The most tragic moment in the film comes when a perky little Chihuahua gets swallowed whole by a giant boa. Poor little yapper -- we knew from the start it didn't have a chance. The most absurd moment (and there are too many to count) arrives midway through, as a germ-phobic rap star (Flex Alexander) wields a gun at Agent Flynn and threatens to blow a hole in the cabin so that he can ''get off the plane.''
Ellis captures the spirit of frenzy, but the whole idea of snakes felling a plane carries with it a ridiculousness that feels a little too artificial. According to a friend, the core idea may have been lifted from a crime novel entitled Bangkok 8, in which a mobster locks a man in a car filled with snakes tweaked out on methamphetamines.
At least Snakes on a Plane doesn't try to deceive us. It's about exactly what it claims to be about. So enter this snakefest at your own risk. Me, I'm holding out for an improved sequel. ''Snakes on a Space Shuttle,'' anyone?