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SnakeEater (1989)

SnakeEater is a schlocky action movie gone bad. Great examples of the genre (Die Hard, Speed) manage to combine genuine, visceral thrills permeated by an overall sense of fun, despite the terrorist acts, murder, and rampant disregard for police protocol. Even middling examples of the genre usually retain the sense of fun, creating forgettable but eminently watchable movies. So what happens when the whimsy is creepily misguided, the action sequences are inept, and the acting is comically awful? SnakeEater.

A solid revenge story exists within the awful screenplay, but this movie is so full of incoherent distractions, the narrative verges on surreal. It opens with our hero, “Soldier” (a smug yet surprisingly affable Lorenzo Lamas), working undercover on a drug bust. After spouting some on-the-nose dialogue explaining his backstory (once part of a special Marine task force known as “the SnakeEaters,” now annoyed that he’s a cop), Soldier does three things meant to endear that actually repel: first, he convinces an attractive drug peddler to strip naked; second, he has sex with her while his superiors listen on the wire; and third, he rigs the floor with a latch that causes a bed of spikes to shoot up from the floorboards, pinning two other drug peddlers. Soldier smirks while they shriek in pain and try to clutch their bleeding feet. I know drugs are bad and all, but this is a few notches over-the-top, even for an action hero.

Now that we know our hero, it’s time for the plot to kick in. The action cuts to a totally unknown elderly couple boating down a river in an unnamed, hillbilly-infested state. A group of those hillbillies, led by Junior (Robert Scott, delivering easily the worst performance in the history of cheesy action movies, and believe me, that’s saying something), descend on the boat. The camera leers as Junior and his cronies torment the husband and wife, and it leers even more when Junior discovers their attractive daughter (Cheryl Jeans) and claims her as his own. He kills the couple, sets the boat on fire, and chains the daughter inside a shack near his broken-down home.

Turns out, the slain couple were Soldier’s parents, which obviously makes the kidnapped daughter his sister. When Soldier learns of the mysterious accident, he travels to investigate. In pretty much the only unique turn, Soldier encounters the hillbilly platoon almost immediately after arriving, and they kick his ass. Actually, the script has some other surprises in store, but they’re more inexplicable than inventive: Soldier is nursed back to health by father-daughter marina attendants (Ronnie Hawkins and Josie Bell), who first convert Soldier’s motorcycle into a jet ski (I wish I could make up something like that), then decide to help him take down Junior and his gang.

Lamas never reached the heights of Schwarzenegger or Stallone (or even Seagal), but he’s a solid, charismatic action star. The flaws in the performances rest less with him than with the uniformly terrible supporting cast (which includes Ron “Horshack” Palillo in one of the weirdest cameos in film history), ranging from “dull-eyed stare” to “cartoonishly over-the-top.” In addition to its bizarre, borderline-Kafkaesque storyline, the screenplay boasts more rape-based comedy than Yellowbeard. I know it’s a bold position to take, but I don’t find rape hijinks funny.

This leads to a larger question: are we supposed to laugh? The film portrays the hillbilly characters with all the sensitivity and nuance of The Hills Have Eyes, which is fine for an action movie, but their scenes are off-putting and tonally questionable. One could argue the scenes in which Junior repeatedly threatens to rape Jennifer, only to get interrupted, should maybe be a little suspenseful. Instead, it’s directed like a sitcom gag. You know the one: all Jack Tripper wants to do is sit down and have a sandwich, and just when he’s about to, everyone in the cast interrupts him, to increasingly hilarious effect.

George Erschbamer directs with all the flash and artistry of a snuff film, leaving the movie to be defined by the disjointed screenplay and incredibly silly actors. Erschbamer brings nothing to the table—nothing to build suspense, nothing to rein in the actors, not even anything to tie one strange scene to the next. His total lack of directorial style has a dire effect on the action sequences, as well. It’s not every director who can make raucous shootouts and barfights watch-checkingly tedious.

With most action movies, I’d shrug and say, “It’s a fun way to pass an hour and a half.” Not so with SnakeEater—it’s the sort of movie that audiences should avoid at all costs. How it managed to spawn two sequels, I’ll never know. (I’ll also never see the sequels.)

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