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MOVIE REVIEW

'Snakes' strikes the right chord

Given the truly profligate amount of hype that has preceded it, both online and in what passes for the real world, a movie called ``Snakes on a Plane" had better be one of two things: So bad it's good or so good it's great.

Darned if it isn't a little bit of both.

The Samuel L. Jackson action film about -- wait for it -- snakes on a plane turns out to be the Royale with cheese this wilted summer movie season has so desperately needed. It ain't art. It ain't pretty. But it works.

A recommendation: If you do intend to see ``Snakes," see it in a theater, the more crowded the better. In four months, when you watch it on DVD by yourself, the movie will look like what it is: A B-flick with a brilliant gimmick and extra-strength moxie. Seen with a pumped-up Friday night audience, it's a party. As with ``The Rocky Horror Picture Show," the action offscreen is half the fun.

This is what months of Internet buzz brings to the table: A willingness to play along with the low-down values of junk cinema. That ``Snakes" has the grace to live up to its billing -- that it's muscular, efficient, and balanced expertly between the scary and the ridiculous -- is extra gravy.

What's it about? Duh. If you want particulars, they run like this: A surfer dude named Sean (Nathan Phillips, acting as bad as he can) witnesses a mob rub out by Hawaiian crime lord Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). He's taken into protective custody by FBI agent Neville Flynn (Jackson) and loaded onto a trans-Pacific red-eye to LA, where he's meant to testify.

The bad guys, meanwhile, have stuffed the cargo hold with dozens of venomous snakes: big ones, small ones, cobras, asps, adders. There's a massive boa constrictor, too, and how it got past airport security is beyond me. To put the beasties in the proper frenzy, they've been dosed with pheromones; as Flynn says, ``Well, that's good news: snakes on crack."

Right off the bat, then, the filmmakers pile three phobias on top of each other: Fear of flying, fear of enclosed places, and fear of icky things with fangs. The script (by John Heffernan, Sebastian Gutierrez, and David Dallesandro) does the only sensible thing given this set up: exploits it ruthlessly and with bloody good cheer.

Thankfully, the passengers aboard South Pacific Flight 121 are a colorful bunch, divided more or less equally between fools, lunch meat, and the resourceful. There's, let's see, the germaphobic rap star (Flex Alexander) with the video game-addict bodyguard (Kenan Thompson); the horny couple (Samantha McLeod and Taylor Kitsch) eyeing the bathroom with mile-high lust; the Latino single mom (Elsa Pataky) with baby; the jerk businessman (Gerard Plunkett); the cute young brothers traveling alone (Casey Dubois and Daniel Hogarth); and the neurotic glamour girl (Rachel Blanchard) with the Chihuahua in her purse.

Add the plane's flight crew -- tough cookie Claire (Julianna Margulies), gleefully chauvinist ic co pilot Rick (the ubiquitous David Koechner), weathered senior flight attendant Grace (Lin Shaye) -- and we've got ourselves a clambake.

The snake attacks, when they finally come, are brutal indeed, and director David R. Ellis plays them for gross-out comic shock. They keep coming, too, out of every orifice and crawl space a jumbo jet has to offer. When one of the characters says, ``I've got a [bleep] snake on my [bleep]!" you can fill in the blanks with just about anything you want. Much has been made about the film's mid-production shift from PG-13 to hard R, and it's obvious where they've upped the ante. That would be the unlucky man who doesn't check the toilet bowl before unzipping.

The snakes? They're computer-generated critters, out-size and aggressive enough to be freaky-deaky but not realistic enough to induce genuine terror in anyone but the characters. Sharp editing and a relentless pace cover the cracks, keeping the movie from tipping over to the point where we're laughing at it rather than with it.

The dialogue plays closer to the fire; that's the big, dumb fun of the thing. When the old-timer flight attendant sighs, ``Last month they offered early retirement. But no -- this old broad wanted one more tour of duty," you know the writers aren't gunning for an Oscar. ``Snakes on a Plane" is packed with felicitous boilerplate like that, and only one line doesn't work: Jackson's pre-celebrated ``I've had it with these [expletive] snakes on this [expletive] plane!"

That was the catch-phrase demanded by the Internet hordes, and the filmmakers clearly shot it at a later date and awkwardly shoehorned it in. The audience cheers -- they have to; it's their handiwork -- but it's the only time ``Snakes" feels like it's pandering to the crowd rather than messing with its head. You can suck up to moviegoers only so long before you turn smug.

In every other respect, Jackson is The Man, and he bestrides this film with the authority of someone who knows the value of honest bilge. He's as much the auteur of this baby as the director and screenwriters, and that fierce glimmer in his eye is partly joy. ``Snakes on a Plane" became a phenomenon unseen because its title 'fessed up to the jokey, propulsive thrills that are sometimes all we want from movies. It'll remain a phenomenon -- at least while it's in theaters -- because it delivers them.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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