New Line's long-awaited "Snakes on a Plane" is at its best when it surrenders to the exuberant trashiness and matter-of-fact hilarity promised by its title. Though not always a first-class gas, "Plane" still managed to satiate a few bloggers and pop-culture fanatics on its way to a middling $15 million, less than expected given how much buzz it generated in the first place.

Whatever it may be — the worst candidate for an in-flight movie since “United 93,” a fascinating case study on the power of Internet publicity, a chance for Samuel L. Jackson to kick some serious asp — New Line’s long-awaited “Snakes on a Plane” is at its best when it surrenders to the exuberant trashiness and matter-of-fact hilarity promised by its title. Though not always a first-class gas, “Plane” still managed to satiate a few bloggers and pop-culture fanatics on its way to a middling $15 million, less than expected given how much buzz it generated in the first place. Homevid mileage looks more promising.

Not since 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” has a horror film — or any film, for that matter — so unexpectedly slithered its way into the public’s imagination thanks to a combination of online chatter, fan-made parodies and pre-release word of mouth.

Details of the project’s lengthy gestation have long since seeped into movie lore: how Jackson agreed to do the picture based on its boldly ridiculous title; how New Line briefly switched the name to “Pacific Air 121″ before wisely, if nervously, embracing the spirit of mockery that had erupted around this sight-unseen cult classic; how Jackson’s most famous line, involving the key repetition of a 13-letter obscenity, came directly from the fans.

While it remains to be seen whether this level of audience involvement in the creative process will have any long-term ramifications for Hollywood, it can’t be denied that all the attention has lent the final product a certain integrity. Rightfully released with an R rating instead of a PG-13 (helmer David R. Ellis shot extra footage after pic wrapped, upping the gore and nudity levels substantially), “Snakes on a Plane” is exactly the sort of tasteless, utterly depraved, no-nonsense sluts-and-guts extravaganza it was meant to be.

In a sunny, Hawaii-set prologue that temporarily distracts from the real matter at hand (namely, snakes on a plane), surfer dude Sean Jones (a bland Nathan Phillips) witnesses the brutal murder of a prosecutor by notorious gangster Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). After a botched attempt on his life, Sean makes the tough decision to testify against Kim, with some urging and an offer of protection from tough FBI agent Neville Flynn (Jackson).

And so Sean and Flynn board a red-eye flight for Los Angeles, unaware that Kim’s thugs have smuggled several crates full of venomous serpents into the cargo area. By the time the snakes make their first appearance around the 25-minute mark, however, pic has already introduced a handful of crew members and passengers: flight attendant Claire Miller (Julianna Margulies), ironically serving her last flight; lascivious co-pilot Rick (David Koechner); Mercedes (Rachel Blanchard), a blonde princess type who’s never without her Chihuahua; uptight rap artist Three G’s (Flex Alexander) and his portly wingmen (Kenan Thompson and Keith Dallas); and infant-toting mother Maria (Elsa Pataky).

With its forked tongue firmly in cheek, John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez’s serviceably nasty script satirizes the horrors of modern travel, while marking some passengers for certain death simply by introducing them — don’t get too attached to the foul-tempered businessman or the horny young couple, for starters.

Some time after takeoff, the snakes explode out of their crates and begin to wreak havoc, chewing through electric wiring, killing the captain (Tom Butler) and slithering their way under passengers’ seats in coach. What follows is a tightly coiled and hiss-terically violent set piece that riffs cold-bloodedly on all the different places a snake can be hidden — and, naturally, all the sensitive places a person can be bitten.

Visceral sequence, which goes on for quite some time, delivers all the eye-gougings, nipple-nibblings and cheesy snake’s-eye vision one could possibly hope for, and will have fans in stitches from start to finish. It’s jarring, then, when all this slapstick sadism is juxtaposed with scenes clearly intended to stir audience sympathy, such as when a little boy gets bitten by a cobra, causing his arm to graphically swell with pus.

From there, the surviving passengers retreat upstairs to the first-class cabin, where the remainder of their flight is jolted by occasional crises — the air conditioner’s broken! they’re losing altitude! turbulence! more snakes! — that don’t exactly get the pulse racing. Tension and humor further dissipate as pic cuts away to the ground below, where Jackson’s FBI colleague (Bobby Cannavale) and a snake expert (Todd Louiso) try to rally on the poison-control front. Concluding reels bring both plane and pic to a shaky landing.

Jackson, though clad in a leather jacket and conveying his usual air of badass authority, is relatively subdued as Flynn, as though determined not to let all the rampant silliness around him ruffle his dignity. (That doesn’t stop him from having some fun with a Taser and a blowtorch.) Margulies, though feisty and appealing, has little to do in what is essentially a stripped-down version of the role Sandra Bullock played in “Speed.”

Lensed in widescreen by Adam Greenberg, pic often suffers from the visual drabness that plagues so many airplane thrillers, as the dim lighting and cramped aisleways evoke the jet’s claustrophobic environs at the expense of spatial coherence. The snakes themselves were brought to life via a deft combination of CGI and more than 400 live specimens, none of which, somewhat miraculously, were harmed during filming.

Sound design throughout comprises a lot of screaming and engine noise, with regular shock notes provided by Trevor Rabin’s suitably menacing score. Closing credits are accompanied by the musicvideo for Cobra Starship’s “Snakes on a Plane (Bring It),” one of the first and scarcely the least of the pic’s numerous pop-song tributes.

Snakes on a Plane

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Mutual Film Co. production. Produced by Gary Levinsohn, Don Granger, Craig Berenson. Executive producers, Justis Greene, Sandra Rabins, Penney Finkelman Cox, Stokely Chaffin, Toby Emmerich, George Waud. Directed by David R. Ellis. Screenplay, John Heffernan, Sebastian Gutierrez, based on a story by David Dalessandro, Heffernan.

Crew

Camera (Rainmaker color, widescreen), Adam Greenberg; editor, Howard E. Smith; music, Trevor Rabin; production designer, Jaymes Hinkle; art director, John Alvarez; set designers, Bryan Sutton, Milena Zdravkovic, Vivien Nishi; set decorator, Mary-Lou Storey; costume designer, Karen Matthews; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Michael McGee; re-recording mixers, Rick Ash, Kevin Carpenter; supervising sound editors, Dave McMoyler, Tom Bellfort; sound designers, Harry Cohen, Tim Walston; stunt coordinators, Freddie Hice, Scott Nicholson; visual effects, Cafe FX, Hybride; visual effects supervisor, Scott Gordon; special effects supervisors, Matt Kutcher, Alex Burdett; snake handler and coordinator, Jules Sylvester; assistant director, Pete Whyte; casting, Mindy Marin; Canadian casting, Coreen Mayrs, Heike Brandstatter. Reviewed at Grauman's Chinese Theater, Los Angeles, Aug. 17, 2006. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Neville Flynn - Samuel L. Jackson Claire Miller - Julianna Margulies Sean Jones - Nathan Phillips Hank Harris - Bobby Cannavale Three G's - Flex Alexander Dr. Steven Price - Todd Louiso Tiffany - Sunny Mabrey Troy - Kenan Thompson Mercedes - Rachel Blanchard Grace - Lin Shaye Rick - David Koechner Maria - Elsa Pataky
With: Byron Lawson, Keith Dallas, Tom Butler.

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