The cast members of "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid" are so lean, tight and cute they look more like they're on a shoot for a J. Crew catalogue than a giant snake movie.
But the movie itself turns out to be pretty lean, tight and cute: It's one of those "I-can't-believe-I'm-enjoying-this" kind of things, a throwback to the old jungle adventure staples of the '30s, happily tossing in cliches (parrots and monkey sidekicks, headhunters and poison spiders) that haven't been tossed in for years, and all without a whisper of irony. Okay, so they've added 50-foot-long snakes -- what's the big deal?
Trimly directed by Dwight Little as if he were channeling the spirit of great '40s directors such as Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh, the movie tells of an expedition up a lazy, lazy river in Borneo, in search of an orchid whose pharmaceutical properties may extend life, thus making whoever happens to possess it a billionaire. So a big pharm corporation sponsors a trip in search of the flower. To go on this hyper-scientific trip, by the way, you must have a PhD, an MD and a 24-inch waist. Hard specs to find, I know, but the casting director does a good job.
Johnny Messner plays the scruffy, sexy, tattooed captain, and though I didn't recognize the name, the guy seemed vaguely familiar. Oh, yeah, thanks to the Internet Movie Database, I learned he'd been one of the SEALs in last year's underrated "Tears of the Sun." He's got cheekbones like billiard balls and eyes like ball bearings, and he keeps finding ways to take that shirt off and show us how ripped he is. He's Michael Phelps with a three-day beard. Plus, a monkey sits on his shoulder: Is this a star turn or what?
He ferries the others into jungleland aboard a creaky old steamer that looks like the thing the cast ran aground in on "Gilligan's Island," helped by his pal and second mate, the Jason Scott Lee look-alike Karl Yune. In fact, after Messner, nearly everyone else in the cast seems to be a clone: Salli Richardson, the team administrator, is a dead ringer for Pam Grier; thin blond babe KaDee Strickland looks like Tea Leoni, Kathryn Morris or Naomi Watts, take your pick; Matthew Marsden looks like Kyle Secor; and so forth and so on. All right, Morris Chestnut looks like Morris Chestnut and nobody else -- you have me there.
The plot is typical: tigers, snakes, triple-canopy jungle, boat wrecks, waterfalls, more snakes, a traitor in their midst, in more or less random order. The big snake orgy is new: Give them some credit even if the anacondas are digital constructs added by some geek toiling over a hot hard drive. Still, as movie illusions go, they're pretty scary, being big and fast at once. But they have no superpowers: They're just big, hungry eating machines, and they die as easily as any other snake.
The movie, I should add, seems to have very little in common with the "original," if such a word may be used, of 1997. It's really not a sequel in any sense, but just another darn anaconda movie!
Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 but feels very close to an R for the violence it depicts.