As an avid fan of killer-animal movies, one thing I’ve learned is that they are shockingly easy to fuck up. For every Deep Blue Sea there are a dozen Shark Nights, for every Alligator countless Primevals. But within the pantheon of trashy creature features, my favorite has to be Anaconda. The movie has never enjoyed the warmest of receptions – its critical response was mixed at best, and it’s often used as a bad-movie punchline – and it’s not hard to see why. It’s unapologetically cheesy, old-fashioned, and lowbrow. But I believe that Anaconda’s true intended audience is the die-hard fans of its genre, and for those of us in that group it’s an absolute corker.
The lean-and-mean plot isn’t much more than a vehicle to supply the reptilian mayhem the movie promises. A documentary crew led by first-time director Terri Flores (Jennifer Lopez) and anthropology professor Steven Cale (Eric Stoltz) embarks on a voyage down the Amazon, intent on locating and filming a semi-mythical tribe called the Shirishama. Soon after their departure they come across Paul Sarone (Jon Voight), a local snake poacher stranded by a rainstorm. After being rescued, Sarone claims that he knows the Shirishama’s location, and offers to lead the crew there. But soon after the change in course, the group finds themselves stalked by a monstrous 40-foot snake – one that Sarone is hell-bent on capturing alive.
None of this is especially original, but it’s a good fit for the movie’s unpretentious aims: present enough to provide stakes, but light enough to not get in the way. The story moves at a brisk pace while still showing discipline in the way it teases its main attraction. Once the anaconda is revealed, however, the movie is downright shameless about shoving it in our faces – just as a crowd-pleasing creature feature should be. The special effects are a mixed bag; the animatronics hold up amazingly well, resulting in some terrifyingly lifelike closeups, while the CGI ranges from serviceable to bad. There are no out-and-out terrible moments – though some of the scenes where the snake coils around its human prey come dangerously close – but the gap in quality between the two methods is hard to ignore. Thankfully, director Luis Llosa stages the snake attacks with skill, having fun with the anaconda’s flexible, elongated shape and blistering speed.
The cast, though varied in acting ability, feels very apt for a genre outing like this: a game, decidedly ’90s ensemble. Lopez, at least in this movie, isn’t much of an actress, but her performance in the lead role ends up gelling nicely with the material. There’s a strange sort of harmony between her line readings and her often-laughable dialogue: it’s hard not to be charmed by how earnestly she delivers lines like, “this film was supposed to be my big break, and it turned out to be a big disaster.” She fares much better in the snake attack scenes, proving to be a capable scream queen, and thanks to her considerable charisma she’s ultimately able to carry the movie. Ice Cube does fine playing himself, and his culture-clash scenes with Jonathan Hyde’s snooty host are obvious but amusing. Owen Wilson pops up too, playing what may be the platonic ideal of the Owen Wilson role. Stoltz gets it the worst as Cale, a bland cipher who doesn’t even have the well-worn types of the supporting cast to fall back on.
Anaconda’s ace in the hole is Jon Voight, who for my money gives one of the most enjoyable performances of his career; note that I did not say most naturalistic, most understated, or deepest. His over-the-top turn as Sarone is a textbook example of a great actor slumming it so expertly that he elevates the material in the process. Voight knows his job is not to be believable or well-rounded, it’s to be the villain. Sneering, glowering, and all-but twirling his mustache, he – and, to its credit, the movie – makes the barest of efforts to make Sarone appear innocent in his early scenes. And while I can’t speak to the authenticity of Voight’s Paraguayan accent, I will happily vouch for its entertainment value; one can’t help but grin as he utters gems like, “this reever can keel you in a thoussan ways.”
Somehow, the performance never completely slides into parody, though it certainly walks that line. Given the context, it’s just right: the role of “crazed, Ahab-like poacher” in a giant snake movie demands nothing less than a masterpiece of camp, and Voight delivers. His finest moment comes in the finale, where he departs the movie on a note so wonderfully depraved that I’m inclined to call it perfect.
The problem with reviewing movies like Anaconda – which I’ve had a soft spot for since I was thirteen – is that I’m never sure how to rate them: do I listen to my head or my heart? Most of the time, the two are more or less in sync, but not in this case. In the end, I’ve got to give my heart the edge, especially considering that I genuinely don’t think Anaconda is a bad movie. I always try to judge movies based on how well they accomplish their intended goal, and by that metric the relentlessly fun Anaconda is all but flawless.