There was a time when Jerry Bruckheimer was to action movies what Jason Blum currently is to horror. Obviously it’s not a true one-for-one comparison as both producers had very different approaches to the kind of movies they made. But their names did become synonymous with specific genres and both had loads of success giving those genres some much needed boosts.
While the 78-year-old Bruckheimer is still steadily producing (he has the highly-anticipated “Top Gun: Maverick” next week), one could argue that his box office blockbuster heyday was in the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s. Included in that ten-year stretch were four films with the delightfully enigmatic Nicolas Cage. One of them was none other than “Con Air”.
I’ve always enjoyed Cage, and while his career is certainly at a much different point today, there has been a surge of love for the actor following his wacky (and not-so-great) recent film “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”. So what better time to look back at one of Cage’s silliest yet most entertaining action movies, “Con Air”. The film came out in 1997 to fairly positive reviews and it was a box office success. So how does it play 25 years later? Well, pretty good to be honest.
Cage plays Cameron Poe, an honorably discharged Army Ranger returning home to Mobile, Alabama to surprise his pregnant wife Tricia (Monica Porter). The two have a bubbly reunion as Trisha Yearwood’s Oscar-nominated original song “How Do I Live” simmers in the background (such a movie staple of the 80’s and 90’s). But when they’re attacked by three obnoxious drunks, one of the thugs ends up dead and Cameron is sentenced to 10 years in prison for manslaughter. While in the penitentiary, he misses the birth of his daughter Casey (Landry Allbright). But the two frequently exchange letters, anxiously anticipating the day Cameron gets out and can finally see his daughter.
The day finally comes when Cameron is granted parole, and just in time to make it home for Casey’s birthday. But to get back home he has to hitch a ride on plane carrying inmates to a new maximum security prison in Alabama. It’s a prison designed for lifers, “the worst of the worst”. So he’s put onboard a converted Fairchild C-123 (appropriately called The Jailbird) with an “all-star” lineup of the country’s most dangerous felons.
Obviously there are a ton of questions. For example, why was Cameron sent off to a prison so far away for what amounted to self-defense? And was there no other way to get him back to Alabama other than a flight full of the most savage criminals? To be honest, in a movie like this those are details I’m happy to overlook. That’s because director Simon West and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg are clearly having a good time stacking up their wacky scenario. And part of what’s fun of “Con Air” is throwing ourselves into it and watching how it all plays out.
As far as the “Who’s Who” of convicts onboard, John Malkovich plays Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, the brilliant yet psychotic mastermind of the inevitable takeover of the plane. Some may laugh, but this is one of my favorite Malkovich performances. He’s a great fit – equal part hammy and cold-blooded menace. It’s said Malkovich wasn’t high on the movie, but he makes for a delightfully devious (and at times dryly funny) chief antagonist.
Cyrus is joined by Nathan “Diamond Dog” Jones (Ving Rhames), a black militant domestic terrorist and Cyrus’ right-hand man. There’s William “Billy Bedlam” Bedford (Nick Chinlund), a mass murderer who killed his wife’s entire family; a serial rapist who goes by “Johnny 23” (Danny Trejo); Earl “Swamp Thing” Williams (M.C. Gainey); a wild-eyed convict with piloting experience; and a chatty arsonist/dopehead named “Pinball” (Dave Chappelle). Oh, and then there’s Garland Greene aka “The Marietta Mangler” (Steve Buscemi), a notorious serial killer who creeps out even the most hardened of the cons.
As Cyrus’s plan unfolds in the air, U.S. Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack) works on the ground to regain control of the plane. Along the way he constantly butts heads with the insufferable (and annoyingly over-the-top) DEA Agent Malloy (Colm Meaney) who wants to shoot the plane down despite there being innocent people onboard including our protagonist. Cage is a hoot with his hit-and-miss Southern accent and his flowing gif-ready locks. The movie has fun with his unique style of action hero and hearing him utter overtly silly lines like “Put the bunny back in the box” never gets old.
“Con Air” only gets crazier with two particularly memorable set pieces, one at an abandoned airfield and the other on the Las Vegas strip. If you’re looking for realism, you’ll be disappointed. Instead West goes for the gusto with over-the-top action and a hearty wink of the eye. It’s that last part that is so important. “Con Air” never takes itself too seriously. It knows how preposterous it is and doesn’t try to be anything other than wild raucous popcorn entertainment. And sometimes that’s all I’m in the mood for. Sadly, we rarely (if ever) get these kinds of movies these days. But at least we have escapes like “Con Air” for whenever that mood hits.