RETRO REVIEW: “Con Air” (1997)

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.


14 thoughts on “RETRO REVIEW: “Con Air” (1997)

  1. Good times watching this as a kid every 4th of July on TNT or USA. Action camp classic right here, essential viewing for any junkie. Cage’s meteoric rise as an action star is still so wild to me. Con Air is a year after The Rock but in that same June 1997, Cage tops himself with Face/Off. Incredible.

    • Cage’s action stardom really was one of the craziest things to watch. And it seemed to come out of nowhere. But I had a blast with this one, The Rock, and Face/Off. Maybe I should do a Retro Review on those two. Great reason to watch them again.

  2. I didn’t think really highly of that film when it came out as it looked like everything else that was out at the time as I was 16 when it came out and wanted something different. Now, I just think it’s an alright film thanks in part to both John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi. I fucking hate “How Do I Live”. Not the Trisha Yearwood version but the LeAnn Rimes version as that song got overplayed to death as I had a cousin who was visiting at the time as she just loved that song and played it over and over and over and over again. It is why I have such loathing for LeAnn Rimes and that fucking song.

    • I remember seeing it in the theater and laughing and hooting the entire time. I’ve always been a fan of it. It had been YEARS since I saw it before this Retro Review. I found myself laughing and hooting all over again.

  3. This and Face/Off are my two favorite “late 90’s” action movies, and I might throw the Rock in there for good measure. There’s something so fun and tongue & cheek about these 90’s “Michael Bay ish” style action movies. Action movies have become so dour and serious of late, have some fun!

  4. I love the over the top action and its craziness as it goes along just makes it better. Fun cast and you juts have to enjoy the ride or in this case the flight.

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