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By Pete Vonder Haar | August 29, 2004

If “Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid,” has anything going for it during these dog days of the summer release season, it would be the ridiculously low expectations surrounding it. The movie is a sequel to the moderately successful 1997 rampaging snake film that starred a damp, pre-diva J-Lo, a paycheck sniffing Ice Cube, a comatose Eric Stoltz, and Jon Voight in the role of a lifetime. “Anacondas” ups (or lowers) the ante by featuring a cast of actors you’ve never heard of (unless you count “Half Past Dead’s” Morris Chestnut), a director you’ve never heard of aside from his work with sequels (“Free Will 2,” “Halloween 4”) and TV shows, and a script reworked by no less than four writers. Add to that its late August premiere date, and it becomes apparent that no one at Sony is anticipating “Spider-Man 2” box office numbers for “Anacondas.” For these reasons, it’s hard to imagine a movie that could be as bad as advance word would indicate.

Rather than use that intro as a segue into saying, “It’s even worse,” I’m here to tell you that “Anacondas” isn’t as lousy as you may have heard. It’s not good, by any means, but for a direct-to-video quality sequel built on a plot so flimsy you could knock it over with a sneeze, it doesn’t completely tank.

You can credit “Anacondas” for not wasting any time on complicated setups or lengthy character development. One scene after a perfunctory intro, where some big multinational agrees to fund an expedition to search for a mysterious “blood orchid” that may hold the key to ending cellular degeneration, our principals are already in Darkest Borneo. Due to the orchid’s plot device blooming pattern, the team only has a week to make their way upriver and obtain samples. Trouble is, it’s the rainy season, and no one will risk the trip. No one, that is, except “Bill Johnson” (Johnny Messner) the steely-eyed, drunken Great White Boat Captain. He agrees, for a fat price, to pilot the doomed cast to their destination. Continuing in the Han Solo spirit, Johnson’s boat, the Bloody Mary, is practically falling apart. One half expects the orchid hunters to mutter, “What a piece of junk,” after which Johnson could say something along the lines of, “It’s the ship that made the Balikpapan Run in less than six parsecs.” No such luck.

Leading the scientific contingent is Dr. Jack Byron and his toothsome assistant Samantha. Dr. Jack (Matthew Marsden) is willing to risk everything in the name of Science, and his English accent lets us know right away that he’s evil. Samantha (KaDee Strickland), on the other hand, has a Southern accent. In another male character, this might be bad news, but here it merely serves to contrast her New World wholesomeness with Jack’s sleazy British malevolence.

Joining them are two representatives of the company: ersatz J-Lo Gail (Salli Richardson), and a clearly chagrined Morris Chestnut. Finally, there’s a h***y doctor (Nicholas Gonzalez), the token “street” black computer whiz who entertains everyone with his “jive” talk (Eugene Byrd), and the copilot of the Bloody Mary, Tran (Karl Yune). Oh, and Kong, Johnson’s monkey. Kong actually gives the best performance in the film.

The group heads off to brave the river and find the orchids. Disappointingly, they don’t immediately run into a lot of snakes. Oh, Gail almost gets eaten by a 20-foot Malay crocodile, which gives Cap’n Bill an opportunity to kill it with his Crocodile Dundee knife, but the only snake action we get early on is a chase sequence involving Kong the monkey. He escapes, which results in his haunting rebirth as a sort of simian Quint: leading his charges on a single-minded vendetta to wipe out the serpents.

Maybe it’s just me, but if you’re going to call your movie “Anacondas,” then – like “Aliens” – you should probably think about loading it up with numerous set pieces filled with these “ultimate keeling machines” (as Jon Voight called them). This holds especially true when you have a cast of improbably beautiful people waiting to be devoured (including Johnson, one of those cinema alcoholics who can spend every waking minute in a bar and still look like he hits the Soloflex three hours a day). What you shouldn’t do is make the audience (who most likely aren’t in the theater because they’re big Eugene Byrd fans) wait 45 minutes between the opening death scene and the next. One is tempted to credit director Dwight Little with not making the mistake of showing too much of the snakes too soon, until you realize that every CGI shot probably amounted to 10% of his total budget.

The Bloody Mary eventually goes over a waterfall, leaving the group to seek the orchids on foot during rainy season and, as it turns out, surrounded by a bunch of h***y anacondas. Seems the dumb flower has to bloom during mating season, darn the luck, and these ignorant humans insist on traipsing through their territory. One by one, the group is picked off, though they don’t so much constantly flee the anacondas as they do stumble upon them, and are devoured in sort of messy PG-13 fashion.

Some of them, anyway. If there’s one major complaint to be made about “Anacondas,” it’s that only about half of the characters get eaten. Maybe it was for budget reasons, or perhaps the cast wanted to avoid the ignominy of getting lunched by a giant computer generated snake. Personally, I’d think that would be a selling point.

“Anacondas” never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously, even if the most potentially entertaining kill zone is never utilized (The Bloody Mary’s crapper is a toilet seat nailed to a hole over the river). And honestly, how seriously are we supposed to take a movie that gives us 50’ anacondas that have somehow magically traveled from their native South America, move at the speed of sound and, if I understood Crocodile Hunter Bill right, are attracted to the female of their cold-blooded species because she’s “in heat.” Who knew anacondas had an estrus cycle? I only wish we’d gotten a look at the queen’s hindquarters.

For what it is – i.e. a B-movie straddling the line between camp and bad horror – “Anacondas” is plenty adequate. More tongue in cheek than its predecessor, and yet less over the top, it won’t do any permanent damage. Of course, it won’t leave much of a lasting impression, either. At best, it will come as a pleasant surprise to those going in with the lowest of preconceptions. At worst, it offers audiences a chance to get out of the August heat for 90 minutes.

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