Con Air (1997) — The in-flight movie we all love to watch

“They somehow managed to get every freak and creep in the universe on this one plane, and then somehow managed to let them take it over, and then they somehow managed to stick us right smack in the middle.”

Justin’s rating: Still beats flying standby on JetBlue

Justin’s review: It’s still kind of funny to me that the ’90s somehow took the gawky, sometimes stammering, always overacting Nic Cage and turned him into an action hero. So much so, in fact, that people actually considered him as the next candidate for Superman until someone sobered up and pulled the plug on that idea.

(Then again, Michael Keaton did well as Batman, so I guess it could’ve worked.)

Clearly from the Michael Bay school of exaggerated directing, Simon West (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) acquitted himself well with his debut in Con Air. Let’s get this out in the open from the start: This is a big, dumb, fun action flick. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s the sort of semi-overblown spectacle that’s designed to please crowds — as long as those people are willing to turn off their logic centers at least until the end credits.

Man, I miss movies like this with their swagger, unsubtle foreshadowing, hyperactive scores, and colorful characters. You can mock them mercilessly while at the same time sheepishly admitting that, yeah, you kind of had a good time.

Anyway, Cage is Cameron Poe, an Army Ranger who killed in self-defense and then had the worst lawyer and judge ever. So he gets sent to movie jail for a while and is eventually granted parole to go home to his wife and the daughter he’s never met.

But isn’t it ironic, Alanis sings, that on the very flight home — prior to his actual technical release — Poe finds himself embroiled in an airborne jailbreak. This “con air” flight is stacked with an assortment of hardcore psychos on their way to a supermax prison, and none of them want to make it there. Thus we’ve got guys like Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich), Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames), Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo), Pinball (Dave Chapelle), and a genuine serial killer (Steve Buscemi) monkeying up the works.

Poe, for his part, works to save his fellow “good” inmates and guards while working with U.S. Marshal Larkin (John Cusack) and bone-headed DEA Agent Malloy (Colm Meany) to achieve the best of all possible endings. It’s a nice little twist to see our hero try to straddle the line between pleasing the bad guys and aiding the good. Plus, there’s a little stuffed bunny that he really and truly wants to put into the hands of his little girl.

I always mistook Con Air as a Michael Bay production (and I don’t think I’m the only one). It uses the same techniques designed to get adrenaline flowing and make every scene feel important: quick cuts, lots of unnecessary slow-mo, an electric guitar soundtrack, dialogue that’s 70% quips, low shots, and a veritable who’s-who of character actors. The combination is exhausting to watch after a certain point, but at least it’s not boring as we ricochet from action setpiece to action setpiece.

One appreciated detail is that the convicts actually have to work hard to pull off their plan. There’s just as many ways that all of this could go wrong for them as for the feds, and some of the most nail-biting sequences are when they have to employ wits and brawn to get the plane off the ground before they’re re-captured.

There’s black humor, action, and crime capering aplenty, but the real attraction here is the absolutely stellar cast. Nic Cage seems almost subdued in comparison when you’ve got Malkovich being unhinged (and weirdly never seeing through Poe’s charade), Buscemi creeping everyone out, and Cusack striding at the height of his game. Again, very little of it holds up to scrutiny, but who cares when everyone’s having a blast here?

If you like the good guys really good, the bad guys really bad, and the plane crashes really crashy, Con Air is your ticket to an express ride to awesomeness. One of the best of the decade, and that’s saying something.

Didja notice?

  • Ah, the “your training makes you a deadly weapon and are held to a higher standard” law that doesn’t actually exist
  • What, his family never came to visit him in prison? Never?
  • This is the most cocky I’ve ever seen Colm Meaney
  • “Black Guerillas” is a semi-clever name
  • Why wouldn’t you tell the guards there’s an undercover agent on the plane?
  • 11 Current Affairs, 2 Hard Copies, and a genuine Geraldo interviewee. Way to date yourself, movie!
  • That’s the cutest little pistol
  • Serial killers get all the coolest chairs
  • Jail cell bomb
  • “So that’s what happened to Pinball!”
  • “Happiness for that gentleman hurts.”
  • Oh the tension of the serial killer sitting down for a tea party with the kids
  • Aww he built a little model! With a rock!
  • “On any other day, that might seem strange…”

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