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Can We Talk About Jon Voight as a Paraguayan Snake Poacher in ‘Anaconda’?

The weirdest casting of 1997 gave us an absurdly watchable performance

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

If it’s early 1997, and you’re a 12-year-old who enjoys monster and adventure movies, you’re going to see Anaconda. It’s that simple. You’ve already seen the special editions of the original Star Wars trilogy. There’s a month to go before The Lost World: Jurassic Park hits theaters. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lopez and Ice Cube are dealing with a giant, man-eating snake. Strap in.

What you’re expecting, of course, is the titular reptile to devour a bunch of Americans foolish enough to disturb its Amazonian habitat. But what kids like me and my friends didn’t (or couldn’t) expect was the outlandish human villain of this creature feature: Paul Serone, a Paraguayan poacher played by… Academy Award-winner Jon Voight. Slimy, sneering, ruthless and manipulative, Serone can be triangulated from the coordinates of Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab, Jaws’ Captain Quint and Kurtz and the maniacal ivory trader from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. (Or perhaps Marlon Brando’s infamous take on the character in Apocalypse Now.) 

Far more than the snakes, Voight dominates the 89-minute film from the moment he makes his entrance — as a lone jungle mercenary stranded thanks to a busted boat propeller. He’s saved by the film crew of a documentary looking for an elusive indigenous tribe (Lopez is the director, Cube is the cameraman, Owen Wilson is the sound guy) and quickly morphs into an intimidating presence, what with his greasy ponytail, portentous warnings (“This river can kill you in a thousand ways…”) and oozingly inauthentic accent. These days, Voight is a Trump-loving conservative, so it’s not like we should expect him to apologize for this ethnic caricature. Still, given that Hollywood has basically never found cause to represent the people or culture of Paraguay, this performance can’t help but read as xenophobic to viewers streaming the movie on Netflix today. It doesn’t help that Serone, in both affect and action, is coded as a mirror of the deadly anaconda. He slithers, he stalks and he slowly suffocates the rest of the cast.  

Your enjoyment of Anaconda — which is otherwise derivative and caught in the awkward transition from practical effects to CGI — hinges on whether you can embrace the campiness of Voight’s work. None other than Roger Ebert rated the film a generous three and a half stars, commending Voight for taking “chances” with his “melodramatic” turn, “always on the delectable edge of overacting.” Conversely, Voight took the honors of “Worst Supporting Actor” and “Worst Fake Accent” at the Stinkers Movie Awards, and was double-nominated by the Razzies, in the categories of “Worst Actor” and “Worst Screen Couple” (along with the animatronic snake). The polarization is revealing: Love it or hate it, there’s something arresting in his batshit presence. 

Part of it is that most of the depth in this screenplay belongs to him. While few of our heroes get any backstory, we learn that Serone was once in seminary, and is sort of touchy as to the circumstances of his departure. “Who says I failed?” he asks when someone calls him a “failed priest.” Later, he will utter the Trinity in Latin to mark the deaths he has directly caused. 

Although Owen Wilson professes that the jungle makes him “horny,” Voight is the only one here with a sexual charge — he leers at a young woman crewmember, referring to her as a “little baby bird,” and in a scene where J-Lo tries to seduce him so that the good guys can retake control of the boat, he hisses that it’s been a “long time since I had a woman,” going along with what he already knows to be a distracting ruse. He even kisses her violently again after foiling their plan.

And while the momentum of Serone’s scheme carries us from one set piece to the next, as the scope of it comes to light, you have to wonder how the hell it came together. We learn that he was secretly in cahoots with the original captain of the vessel to capture an anaconda alive, and his initial “rescue” was only a ploy. So why didn’t these two geniuses put together a team of experienced trappers instead of engineering a one-man mutiny to turn a National Geographic cruise into a poaching expedition? And why does Serone seem to prefer using human bait when, as he demonstrates, a butchered monkey will do the job? You come to accept that this is his uniquely entertaining form of madness — that for him there is no point to the hunt unless he’s also terrorizing other people into risking life and limb. The contrived power struggle just raises the stakes of capturing a million-dollar bounty. As he quips early on: “Danger is exciting!”   

That Anaconda had any chance of becoming a touchstone is down to Voight’s death scene in the final act, when he’s crushed, eaten whole and then regurgitated, barely alive, to throw his last ghoulish wink at a terrified J-Lo. But he was, too, the compelling heart of this mess throughout; his B-movie brazenness is the reason it stands as a cult favorite 25 years later. In so many ways, he reminds you of the oft-repeated claim that “you couldn’t make this today.” And while it’s true that no sane casting director of this era would choose the son of Slovak and German immigrants to play a Paraguayan antagonist, we’re arguably lucky to have an example of what happens when you do. It’s tempting to read this as the end of one approach to filmmaking, the kind that’s done by the seat of the pants, with no time to worry over your missteps and inaccuracies. In that world, Voight didn’t have to be believable, since he could merely show up and be his magnificently weird self, a character actor totally unleashed.

Is it offensive? Sure. Embarrassing? Of course. Forgettable? Not in the slightest. If you can swallow this much absurdity — and it’s certainly a lot — then you have an impressive appetite.