- Failing to live up (or down) to the seemingly endless pre-release Internet hype
- Relying on an extensive cast of undeveloped characters and a perfunctory plot to get things moving toward an overlong, repetitive series of CGI-snakes-in-your-face shocks
- Being boring-bad instead of fun-bad
Defender: Director David Ellis, star Samuel L. Jackson, producer Craig Berenson, associate producer Tawny Ellis, special-effects supervisor Eric Henry, second unit director/stunt coordinator Freddie Hice
Tone of commentary: Like the film itself, predictable, repetitive, uncomfortably goofy, and fairly dull. Early on, most of the participants sound strained, loud, and overexcited, as though they’d had a few drinks beforehand and/or were trying to share too few mics by shouting across the room. A slaphappy tone is set literally 18 seconds in, when Berenson introduces himself as producer, and someone fake-coughs “Bullshit!” to gales of laughter. Jackson follows that by introducing himself as “Samuel Flex Darcy… I’m representin’ all the brothas in this movie! I’m lettin’ you know there’s some black people in this movie! And some of them can act!”
But things rapidly settle down into a milder stew of self-praise, praise for participants not present (the composer, the editor, effects people, etc.), and stories that will already be familiar to anyone who followed the extensive Internet news about the film’s pre-release saga. (They almost changed the title to Pacific Air 121, but didn’t after massive fan outcry. They shot a PG-13 movie but then were invited to go back and shoot additional shots of gore, nudity, and swearing for an R rating. Etc.)
There’s a lot of general joking around, much of which is simultaneously cutesy and juvenile. An awful lot of attention is paid to a small dog named Mary Kate that’s actually male and was “a little Romeo” before they sent it off to be fixed; thereafter, every time it appears, the commenters discuss whether its testicles or lack thereof are visible, and joke about turning it from a he to a she. During a scene where two people sneak off to fuck in a bathroom, Jackson says he tried to join the Mile High Club, but got put on the waiting list. Then he quips about the couple, “He’s tryin’ to get his snake in the plane! Trying to get in the hangar… Snakes On A Tit coming up! That’s what I’m looking for!” When a snake does latch onto the girl’s naked breast, Ellis expresses envy of the snake, then chaffs Henry a little about how the SFX took 12 weeks to do that shot “because they just kept returning to it over and over for some reason.”
Even when one commentator is momentarily serious, another immediately takes off into silliness: Ellis says he’d like to keep more film productions in America rather than “shooting up in Vancouver.” Jackson immediately starts riffing about how it’s great shooting up in Vancouver, because they have a needle-exchange program and just give away free needles. “So if I had to pick a city I wanted to shoot up in, that’s my spot… you don’t have to hide it.” At another point, someone tells a story about getting a snake to bite its trainer’s (heavily padded) leg in order to get one shot, and someone else interrupts by saying that the trainer died a week later, and Jackson “did her oo-loo-gee. Oo-loh-gee? Eulogy. That too. He did them all.”
Mostly, they’re all delighted with the film, particularly Jackson. He delivers a little manifesto about how every film can’t be “Brokebuck Fountain… oh wait, that’s the Vivid Video version,” and how he loved this kind of thing as a kid, where it’s just about excitement and going into a big dark room for a little while to forget everything else. Then he adds “Last time I made a speech like this, a shark jumped up out of the water and killed my ass.”
What went wrong: Virtually nothing. Ellis acknowledges that due to the film’s title, the possible locations he approached about shooting permissions “weren’t jumping for joy, like we’re making a really good movie.” Also, “we were having problems getting some actors to take us seriously.” Other minor things: A rubber snake meant solely for shadow positioning for the SFX crew was accidentally left in one shot. (Henry sweated over it and took abuse for it, but finally justified it by saying that one’s a dead snake.) After four hours in makeup getting a prosthetic wound put in place, a child actor tore it off “because he thought it would be cool.” Bad continuity at the end has Kenan Thompson jumping off the plane in one shot, then queuing up to jump off it again in the next shot. And at one point, they lost a snake, but instructed the snake handler to tell everyone he’d found it, so they could go on shooting without creating a panic. It eventually turned up inside a cushion.
But the commentary is largely enthusiastically positive, to the point where when Ellis’ daughter Tawny attempts to tone it down a tiny notch, she takes shit for it. Discussing the extra R-rated reshoots, Ellis is cavalier about the process, as though it were the work of a day; Tawny laughs about how it wasn’t exactly that easy, whereupon Jackson booms at her “You’re not getting to go onstage when they get called up there for the award! You’re going to be one of the producers in court!”
Comments on the cast: Jackson gets praise as someone who doesn’t believe in repeated takes, and generally gets things right the first time. He responds “Film’s valuable, and the less time I spend at work, the more time I spend on the golf course.” The rest of the commentary is peppered with jokes about his golf-playing and how much money he’s won betting on himself as a golf player.
As to the rest of the cast, he facetiously claims he was “very standoffish with those people, because I knew that once they started to interact with me, it was going to be a whole thing of one-upsmanship. So I tried to avoid that as long as I possibly could, and just work with the main characters.” Ellis: “Every time you see Sam in a shot with somebody else, it’s face-replacement. It’s really his stunt double.”
As to the female cast, they mostly come in for tame male sniggering: When Jackson and female lead Julianna Margulies have a conversational moment, Ellis claims it used to be “a pretty cool scene” where they just dropped everything to wildly make out. When she removes her flight-attendant jacket during a sweaty late-film confab, everyone implies that her character is stripping in hopes of a quickie before the plane crashes; Ellis even calmly makes up a production story about how in the first take of that shot, she stripped naked instead, and he just thought “Okay, I guess everybody plays it differently.” When she next appears with one button of her shirt unbuttoned, he leers that she’s done now, and “all worn out.” And so forth. Similarly, when an attractive woman sucks the poison out of a child’s snakebite in a harrowing, grotesque scene, the men generally joke about how now another male character probably wants his ass-bite sucked as well, and how all the guys on the plane are suddenly willing to go get bitten too.
Inevitable dash of pretension: The filmmakers are all entirely clear that they’re making “a fun summer movie” and nothing more; no one tries to claim any high-art ambitions or inspirations. Instead of pretension, though, they have pretend. Seemingly half the commentary is just straight-faced, one-upsmanship-laced riffing full of ridiculous claims. During a gunfight, Ellis claims they actually shot the stuntmen, because Vancouver is cool with that kind of thing. When a fat lady in a yellow muumuu appears on the plane, they claim it’s director of photography Adam Greenberg in drag. They joke on and off about Jackson actually killing snakes on set and making belts out of them if they forgot their lines. (Jackson, on the American Humane Association’s “No animals were harmed” disclaimer at the end of the film: “We lieeeeeeeeeeed!”) They pretend the snakes were actors who hung around craft services and would obediently do things like half-swallow someone’s head, then spit it out for the next take.
And there’s an infant on the snake-filled plane, which sparks jokes every time it appears. Jackson claims every time he saw it, he’d yell “We got a real baby on the plane! More smoke!” Ellis responds “Well, at least the lung-transplant thing worked out.” In a scene where the plane tears open, they claimed the baby went out the window, but it’s okay because they had a small fishing boat in the water below to retrieve it, and anyway, it was wearing baby water wings, and besides, “It was a stunt baby.” In a scene where the baby cries, they discuss using C-clamps and jumper cables on its feet offscreen to keep it crying. Tawny Ellis eventually sighs “There are police outside for every one of us after this.”
Commentary in a nutshell: During a sequence where a venomous snake latches onto the penis of a urinating man, Jackson cackles like a loon. Ellis: “I’d like to thank the Academy… You know, every director has a legacy, and this is what I’m leaving.” Jackson: “And we’re down with that! Aw, hell yeah!”