Despite some game efforts by a fine cast dominated by a brazenly over-the-top Jon Voight, “Anaconda” is a silly and plodding “Jaws” rip-off about a 40-foot man-eating snake on the prowl in the Brazilian rain forest. Sony release might scare up some change during its opening weekend, but likely will fare better after it slithers off to video.
Thriller begins with a documentary crew setting out on a river journey to find the Shirishama Indians, a legendary tribe that supposedly exists in a hidden corner of the rain forest. Anthropologist Steve Cale (Eric Stoltz) heads a team that includes director Terri Flores (Jennifer Lopez), cameraman Danny Rich (Ice Cube), sound mixer Gary Dixon (Owen Wilson), production manager Denise Kalberg (Kari Wuhrer) and narrator Warren Westridge (Jonathan Hyde).
Early on, the documentarians bring aboard an unexpected guest: Paul Sarone (Voight), an aggressively charismatic but enigmatically evasive fellow who’s rescued from a sinking boat. Sarone claims to know the whereabouts of the Shirishama tribe, and offers to guide his rescuers there. Before long, however, it’s clear Sarone has a very different agenda in mind.
Not surprisingly — remember, pic is named “Anaconda,” not “Shirishama” — Sarone turns out to be a ruthless snake hunter who has more than a little in common with his prey. When Cale is incapacitated after an encounter with a tropical insect, Sarone takes the opportunity to commandeer the crew’s river barge to hunt for a legendary anaconda that is just slightly smaller than the Alaskan Pipeline. He plans to take the creature back alive; the anaconda, of course, has other ideas.
Sporting a scarred face, an arrogant leer and a tricky accent that’s meant to identify him as a Paraguayan, Voight gives a performance that could be labeled Swift’s Premium and sold by the pound. He has a near-classic moment of high-camp grandiloquence in a scene in which Sarone gleefully describes the anaconda as “the perfect killing machine. … It strikes, wraps around you, holds you tighter than your true love. And you get the privilege of hearing your bones break before the power of their embrace causes your veins to explode.” To their credit, the other actors in the scene listen to all of this with perfectly straight faces.
For all of his considerable excess, Voight is a lot more fun, and much more convincing, than the Animatronic anaconda, which comes off looking like a cartoonish bit player from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”
Top-billed Lopez filmed this folly before “Selena.” So there is an amusing undercurrent to the scene in which her character, a first-time filmmaker, bitterly surveys her situation. “I thought this movie would be my first big break,” she says. “Instead, it’s turned into a disaster.” Amen, sister.
Hyde has a couple of funny scenes as the doomed Westridge, the sort of fatuous twit who practices his golf swing on the deck of a river barge. Wilson (“Bottle Rocket”) and Wuhrer do as well as they can as supporting players who exist only to become snake food. Stoltz spends nearly three-quarters of the pic off camera while his character is asleep below deck, recovering from his injuries. It’s hard to shake the suspicion that, while his co-stars continued to labor on “Anaconda,” Stoltz was free to go off and do two or three indie movies between scenes.
With Stoltz out of the way, it’s up to the plucky Lopez and the well-cast Ice Cube to battle the big snake in the less-than-stunning climax. “Anaconda” is the first movie of its kind to have a Latina and an African-American handle the monster-disposal chores, so director Luis Llosa (“Sniper,” “The Specialist”) deserves at least a little credit for subverting genre conventions. Usually, a character such as the one Ice Cube plays is among the first to be chomped up by the marauding creature. And just as often, a character such as Lopez’s director merely stands around, frozen in fear, when she isn’t screaming her pretty little head off. Welcome to the brave new world of politically correct B movies.
Randy Edelman contributes an overbearing musical score intended to cue the audience when something scary is going on. The visual effects by John Nelson and Animatronic effects by Walt Conti manage to appear expensive and unconvincing all at once. The big, bad anaconda never really develops any personality — menacing or otherwise — and remains nothing more than a jack-in-the-box gimmick. Other tech values are adequate.