Con Air (1997): A passionate case for a very silly film

Yep, it’s Crazy Nic Cage again! I’ve mentioned it several times before, but I sincerely adore the man. Whether you love him, loathe him or simply think ‘Meh’, there isn’t a reasonable case to be made that he doesn’t give it his all in the likes of Leaving Las Vegas, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Matchstick Men or The Family Man. Now, it goes without saying that he’s gone far too over-the-top in many instances (Vampire’s Kiss and Deadfall being glaring offenders) but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s part-and-parcel of Cage’s deranged magic. Plenty of theories have been offered in explanation of why the guy is so…different. A popular and convincing argument is that his method incorporates physicality that is typically restricted to the conventions of silent cinema, exaggerated gestures being the only intuitive way you could emote unambiguously. Cartoonish? Maybe, but not an objectively wrong way to approach performances. Even Cage’s phone-in turns in straight-to-home-media debt-relief crap have helped bolster his affectionate status as a walking meme, and I personally love the fact that the same person who chews scenery with the hammiest batshittery can also dominate the screen with nuance and poignancy in the form of characters like Ben Sanderson and Yuri Orlov. Dialled up or down, Cage is always wonderful to watch.

One of his most iconic roles is found in a picture that is at the apex of mindless, B-movie action stupidity, but it’s a film that also has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek every step of the way. I’m well aware that inextricable nostalgia most certainly has a part to play in this review, but I nevertheless stick my name to the claim that Simon West’s Con Air is a fun, badass and intentionally hilarious action thriller where Cage is so consummately heroic that it smooths out moments that should be pure cringe.

If you’re not familiar with the story, Cage stars as Cameron Poe, a genteel-but-not-gentle Alabama boy and decorated U.S. Army Ranger. Having been honourably discharged, Poe has touched back down in his home state to be gleefully reunited with pregnant wife Tricia (Monica Potter). During their attempt at a peacefully romantic evening in a local bar, Cameron & Tricia are harassed by Billy Joe (Kevin Gage a.k.a Waingro from Heat), a drunken bully who leads a crew of equally vile and abusive shitheads. While they’re trying to leave, Cameron & Tricia are accosted in the parking lot by Billy Joe & Co, our hero receiving a bit of a kicking before his Ranger brain boots up and he proceeds to batter the ever-loving shit out of them. Billy Joe pulls a knife, Cameron executes a palm strike that sends Billy’s nose bone up into his brain and kills him (this isn’t something that actually works, but whatever, this is Con Air for Christ’s sake). Cameron’s lawyer advises him to plead guilty and serve a maximum of 4 years, but the judge decides that Cameron’s military expertise makes him a deadly weapon and he should serve 7-10 years. For defending himself. So far, so absurd.

While in prison, Cameron’s daughter Casey is born and subsequently becomes his pen pal. Cameron also becomes best friends with loveable and sarcastic inmate Mike “Baby-O” O’Dell (Mykelti Williamson), keeps up a healthy exercise regimen and learns Spanish, for whatever reason. Being a morally upright guy who ultimately just wants to get back to his wife and child, Cameron is well-behaved inside and manages to secure parole after eight years. To get back to Tricia & Casey, Cameron will need to board a Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System aircraft (in simpler terms, the titular ‘Con Air’) for a long-ass flight, one where he will at least have Baby-O for company, the latter being transferred to another penitentiary. Why does he have to endure such a long flight? Because Mr Poe, a guy from Alabama who was arrested, tried and convicted in the state of Alabama for an offence that took place in Alabama, served his prison sentence in…California. Because he just did, alright?

As you’ve probably guessed/are already aware, this flight isn’t going to be any kind of picnic. Cameron and Baby-O are blessed with the company of ”every creep and freak in the known universe”, including repulsive sex offender Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo), husky familicidal rageaholic William “Billy Bedlam” Bedford (Nick Chinlund), Black Power terrorist Nathan “Diamond Dog” Jones (Ving Rhames) and the insanely well-educated psychopath Cyrus ”The Virus” Grissom (John Malkovich). In conjunction with being wicked smart and prone to killing people, Cyrus is also a diabolical genius who has engineered a cunning and elaborate plot to take control of the aircraft and fly off into the sunset. The takeover works, and Cameron is concerned and pissed off.

Attempting to keep track of the mayhem on the ground is U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack), a thoughtful and intelligent law enforcement official who tries to contend with Cyrus’ evil shenanigans and the incessant haranguing of DEA agent Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney), a boorish dickhead who has sent one of his operatives undercover on the plane to obtain info from a certain prisoner. As Cameron and Vince respectively decipher the aspects of Cyrus’ plans and brainstorm ways to thwart him, Cameron becomes aware of Larkin’s existence and reluctantly agrees to work alongside him. Larkin races to figure shit out on soil while Poe kicks tons of asses and takes many names mile-high, all amid an endless barrage of gunfights and explosions. Will the forces of good prevail with Cameron getting back to his family and establishing an everlasting bromance with Marshal Larkin? Or will Cyrus and his merry band of scumbags escape and live out their days in a paradise of ”sandy beaches, umbrella drinks and dirty naked freaks”?

So, how is Con Air a cut above the rest of the seemingly indistinguishable, corny OTT action fodder that came out in the 1990s? Because it knows precisely how insane it is. Unlike Michael Bay’s The Rock and its attempted balance of Cage & Connery’s bouncy rapport with Ed Harris’ po-faced villainy or Air Force One‘s bizarre delusion that its jingoism is anything other than uber-cringe, Con Air maintains a consistent vein of nutty caricatures and dark humour for the duration. In response to charges that he could never possibly portray a convincing action hero, Cage swapped his habitual gurning and shrieking for the composure of Poe, a character who is immensely easy to root for while being utterly ridiculous courtesy of his mullet and mangled Southern drawl. Instead of emitting god-awful and ”intimidating” one-liners a la Steve Seagal, Cameron Poe prefers to convey an understated wit with strategically diplomatic and pithily caustic responses, not dissimilar to Lee Child’s hero Jack Reacher (a character that I’d have legitimately picked Cage for over Cruise any day). Several other characters refer to Poe as ‘hillbilly’ and ‘trailer trash’, and he uses the misconception to his advantage over the course of planning to take down Cyrus, at one point responding to the complaining Pinball (Dave Chapelle) with a faux-sincere ”Aw, shucks”. Part of the reason Snake Plissken is so entertaining is that he growls abuse in an Eastwood-esque voice. Poe is entertaining and amusing because of the inverse, his mountain man twang and good manners juxtaposed with the insane brutality he is capable of, and the film is well aware of how mental that is.

Why would John Malkovich, an actor of patrician-level esteem who knocked it out of the park in intelligent works like Dangerous Liaisons and In The Line Of Fire, agree to play the main villain in a thoroughly bloody bonkers action movie? Because he completely aces it, that’s why. Cyrus is a phenomenally eloquent polyglot who is well-versed in many academic disciplines, and while this is a stock character that is intrinsically hammy in action-land, Malkovich’s cadence and timing make it work tenfold. Cyrus is an unapologetically theatrical antagonist, but any other performer would have induced eye-rolling. Malkovich ensures that Cyrus is simultaneously hilarious and resolutely detestable without missing a beat. Every single player in Con Air communicates a virtually psychic fourth-wall-break in that they’re fully aware and in control of how utterly silly and removed from reality their character is, and the fact that they’re obviously having fun is why it carries off. There’s effectively a deadpan camaraderie at play here, and it’s the rabbit out of the hat.

But, you say, Mark Mancina & Trevor Rabin’s excessively triumphant score and Trisha Yearwood’s cover of LeAnn Rimes’ How Do I Live surely annihilate it with a super-thick coating of cheese? Nope, not even close. Remember how I began this review extolling the virtues of Nicolas Cage? Well, even with all the silliness, he still manages to make Poe a believably cool and righteous guy who you’re hoping like hell makes it home. The film’s central theme is brilliantly intuitive in regards to Cameron’s All-American badassery, kicking in motif-wise when Poe needs to smack some heads together in a pitch-perfect fashion. It genuinely transcends 90s cheesiness and just becomes a ‘Hell Yeah’ bit of tuneage. While the Yearwood track may be a resolutely cringey bit of pop that elicits a deluge of ‘Oh, God’ from the too-cool-for-school viewers, it actually fits perfectly and poignantly in regards to Poe’s whole ethos. Cameron is not a strike-a-match-off-the-boot, guttural shitkicker. He’s a two-fisted apple-pie fella who just wants the two important girls in his life back, and Cage once again circumvents the tune being cheesy and actually ensures that it’s weirdly quite nice. Steve Buscemi also gives one of the best performances of his career as the worst guy on the plane who somehow ends up becoming not the worst guy on the plane.

It’s big, it’s noisy, it’s fairly predictable and it’s fucking weird but, when all is said and done, I love Con Air. By virtue of being more self-aware than many dumb 90s action thrillers, it ultimately has a lot more flow, humour and heart to it. It’s just a bit lamentable that a lot of greedy producers familiar with Cage’s profligacy saw this and said amongst themselves ‘He can do action!’, because he’s doing it with a mad, singular earnestness-yet-not here that he hasn’t replicated in any other cash cows. I believe that everyone who is a fan of Con Air instinctively knows that it’s special, strange, stupid and inimitable. Friday is a night for digging out some beers and kicking back with a smile on your face, and there couldn’t be a better motion picture.

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