In case you wondered, it comes about an hour and twenty minutes in: the call and response in the Church of B-Movies, with Samuel L. Jackson as the hellfire pastor. “Enough is enough!” bellows Jackson. “I have had it with these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane!” The heavily sarcastic audience at the Thursday-night screening went wild. The entire movie leads up to that line, that delivery of that line, that actor delivering that line in that way.
Is it worth the wait? As someone with a deep appreciation for B-movies done with panache, I’d say yes. Snakes on a Plane delivers the goods. How could it not? It does drag a bit in the middle; there are, as it happens, only so many ways you can do snakes on a plane, and the filmmakers’ ingenuity peaks early. Still, this is perfectly pleasurable drive-in fare, and would have been even without the incessant Internet hype that we’re all a little tired of by now. What’s going to be funny is watching Hollywood try to catch this schlock-zeitgeist lightning in a bottle twice. But they can’t. Snakes on a Plane will be often imitated, never duplicated.
I mourn the loss of original director Ronny Yu, who might’ve made his Snakes as a “crazy mad Hong Kong version,” to quote Jackson. But Final Destination 2 helmer David R. Ellis steps up authoritatively and gets the dirty job done. Jackson’s FBI agent Neville Flynn must protect a murder witness (Nathan Phillips) from the vicious ganglord whose baseball-bat antics he inadvertently eavesdropped on. Flynn puts the guy on a red-eye from Honolulu to L.A. to testify. The ganglord arranges to have a wide variety of poisonous snakes (from all over the world, we’re told by snake expert Todd Louiso) placed in the cargo hold, with pheromones making them super-aggressive. At a certain point, the snakes dangle down into the coach cabin along with the oxygen masks, and it’s showtime.
Snakes on a Plane was famously reshot to upgrade it from a milder PG-13 to a harder R rating, and the additional sleaze (snake vs. boob) and gore certainly don’t hurt. Watching it with a snarky crowd amped up for self-aware crapola is a meta experience — every death becomes a home run, every bit of foreshadowing (“Yes, coach is safe,” stewardess Julianna Margulies reassures a nervous chihuahua-carting bimbo) an occasion for MST3K-style goofing. This is absolutely one of the great audience films, if you see it with the right jaded mix of people (or just go with a large group of like-minded friends). I really don’t see it working as well in your living room (unless, again, you invite a bunch of derisive geeks over).
Jackson does his usual Jackson thing; he knows he’s there to come across with the Samuel L. Jackson-ness, and he pleases the crowd without too much effort. To be honest, it was more fun watching him gleefully promoting the film on The Daily Show than watching him in the actual movie; Snakes on a Plane doesn’t quite live up to the Great Ultimate Samuel L. Jackson Motherfuckin’ Movie in your head. But it’ll do, and there’s fun support from Kenan Thompson as the videogame-addicted Troy, Bobby Cannavale as an FBI desk jockey who finds himself collaring a snake wrangler in the desert when he’d rather be bidding on a black velvet Pam Anderson painting, and David Koechner as the unflappable co-pilot who manages to steer the plane with a Popeye-swollen arm full of venom.
Snakes on a Plane is a catchphrase, a marketing triumph, a hipster phenomenon. Fortunately, it’s also a slyly entertaining flick divorced from all that, with various satisfying snake kills (many will enjoy the fate of the poor sap who only sought to empty his bladder; others will thrill to the unfair match of insufferable British twit vs. boa constrictor). Best of all, it can’t possibly disappoint your expectations, because what are you expecting? There’s a plane. There are snakes on it. And there’s Samuel L. Jackson. For once, you get exactly what the ads promise.