Sublimely trashy, this conceptual sequel to 1997's surprise hit, "Anaconda," doesn't expect to be taken any more seriously than its schlock predecessor and keeps its tongue-in-cheek thrills flowing rapidly. Could squeeze a couple of solid weeks from genre and urban auds, before slithering on to even stronger homevid/DVD biz.

Not unlike the exotic flower its heroes seek, “Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid” is something of a jewel among grade-Z entertainments. Sublimely trashy, this conceptual sequel to 1997’s surprise hit, “Anaconda,” doesn’t expect to be taken any more seriously than its schlock predecessor (which starred the then-relatively unknown Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson), and keeps its tongue-in-cheek thrills flowing rapidly. While late-summer opening may prevent B.O. from reaching original pic’s robust $65 million, “Anacondas” could squeeze a couple of solid weeks from genre and urban auds, before slithering on to even stronger homevid/DVD biz.

Though it reprises no characters from “Anaconda,” new pic tells a similar story of jungle adventurers journeying upriver into a venomous heart of darkness. As before, Joseph Conrad needn’t feel threatened.

Whereas prior pic focused on anthropological filmmakers searching for a lost Amazonian tribe, this time a quintet of scientists (who, natch, look more like pin-ups) is dispatched to Borneo by a major New York pharmaceuticals corporation.

Group includes egotistical team leader Jack (Matthew Marsden); his nubile female assistant (and former pupil) Sam (KaDee Strickland); competitive doubting Thomas Gail (Salli Richardson-Whitfield); money man Gordon (Morris Chestnut); and computer geek Cole (Eugene Byrd), whose real specialty is providing comic relief. Also along is a libidinous young doctor (Nicholas Gonzalez) who can scarcely conceal his attraction to Sam.

The team’s collective goal is to harvest a rare breed of orchid that may be capable of prolonging life. If that is true, the find could turn them all into overnight billionaires.

Of course, “Anacondas” is no more a movie about orchids than was “Adaptation.”, and so it’s only a matter of time before pic’s intrepid explorers become live bait for an eponymous army of man-eating snakes.

Arriving in Indonesia at the height of the rainy season, the researchers find only one guy in town crazy enough to ferry them where they want to go — an American ex-special forces operative named Johnson (Johnny Messner), who has shoulders the size of bread loaves and one of those grizzled, square-jawed demeanors that says he eats nails for breakfast.

Out on the water, Johnson’s boat (a ramshackle heap that makes the African Queen seem a model of seaworthiness) stalls and, in a Herzog-esque sequence, plummets over a dramatic waterfall. Forced to hike through dense jungle brush in search of help (and, amazingly, still in search of the blood orchid), the explorers find themselves deep inside the Anacondas’ lair and about to discover that — uh oh — it’s mating season.

Make no mistake, “Anacondas” is never more than a parade of cliches strung together by some seven credited writers (including the late Jim Cash, who died four years ago). But pic works consistently on the level of Corman-esque popcorn entertainment thanks to the efficiency, energy and lightness of touch of helmer Dwight Little (“Halloween 4,” “Marked for Death”) and his game cast. From a wrestling match between Johnson and an animatronic crocodile to the sophomoric sexual innuendo, pic constantly winks and nods at the audience. Yet, it also manages to deliver its fair share of armrest-gripping jolts, particularly in the snake-attack sequences, which frequently surprise with their brutal speed and fury.

As pic progresses toward its climactic showdown between men and beast, it has great fun toying with the notion that these super-snakes may actually be a good deal more clever than the greedy fortune hunters.

Shot in Fiji on a modest budget, pic’s production values are reasonably muscular, with crisp, spacious widescreen lensing by Australian cinematographer Stephen F. Windon (save for a few conspicuously underlit shots at pic’s climax). CG work is well integrated with pic’s physical special effects, while some special mention must go to a very well-trained tree monkey named Kong who steals just about every scene he’s in.

Anacondas: The Hunt For The Blood Orchid

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Screen Gems presentation of a Middle Fork production. Produced by Verna Harrah. Executive producer, Jacobus Rose. Directed by Dwight Little. Screenplay, John Claflin, Daniel Zelman, Michael Miner, Ed Neumeier; story, Hans Bauer, Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr., based on a screenplay by Bauer, Cash, Epps.

Crew

Camera (Atlab Australia color, Deluxe prints, Arriflex widescreen), Stephen F. Windon; editors, Marcus D'Arcy, Marc Warner; music, Nerida Tyson-Chew; production designer, Bryce Perrin; art director, Bryan Edmonds; costume designer, Terry Ryan; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Gary Wilkins; supervising sound editor, Andrew Plain; visual effects supervisor, Dale Duguid; visual effects, Photon VFX; assistant director, Jamie Crooks; second unit director/camera, Mark Wareham; casting, Justine Baddeley, Kim Davis-Wagner. Reviewed at Clarity screening room, Beverly Hills, Aug. 18, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Bill Johnson - Johnny Messner Sam Rogers - KaDee Strickland Dr. Jack Byron - Matthew Marsden Cole Burris - Eugene Byrd Gail Stern - Salli Richardson-Whitfield Dr. Ben Douglas - Nicholas Gonzalez Tran - Karl Yune CEO - Dennis Arndt Gordon Mitchell - Morris Chestnut

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