Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, along with partner Don Simpson, went from in-demand talent to persona non grata in a nanosecond (as is the way in Hollywood), but in the mid ‘90s they experienced a phoenix-like resurrection – well, Bruckheimer did anyway; Simpson died in 1996 – thanks to a (terrible) little movie called “Bad Boys.” Over the next four years, Bruckheimer was bulletproof; “Crimson Tide,” “Dangerous Minds,” “The Rock,” “Armageddon” and “Enemy of the State” were all huge hits, action movies that dealt with matters from an underwater nuclear standoff to the end of the world as we know it. Surprisingly heady stuff for what is supposed to be a fluff-filled genre.
Which is precisely why “Con Air,” the silly little convicts-on-a-plane flick that hit the multiplexes in the summer of 1997, is the most enjoyable movie Bruckheimer produced during that time. The cast is spectacular, nabbing an Oscar winner (Nicolas Cage), a Gen-X heartthrob (John Cusack), two indie darlings/Quentin Tarantino regulars (Steve Buscemi and Ving Rhames) and the ultimate actor’s actor, John Malkovich. What attracted them to such a ridiculous premise? A script from Scott Rosenberg that is both clever and stupid, appealing to the Spinal Tap fan in us all. You can keep the Michael Bay crane shots (he was responsible for “Bad Boys,” “The Rock” and “Armageddon,” ugh) that defined this part of Bruckheimer’s career: Bay never made a movie as undeniably fun as this.
The setup, admittedly, is flimsier than flimsy: Army Ranger Cameron Poe (Cage) gets in a fight with a drunken redneck on his first night back from service, and kills the man in self-defense. Poe’s lawyer, who was clearly roommates with Lionel Hutz at law school, tells him to plead guilty, and the remorseless judge gives Poe seven to ten years. Even worse, Poe is sent to the clink before he ever sets eyes on his daughter Casey, who is still in the womb of his wife Tricia (Monica Potter, and no, they don’t explain how Poe is capable of impregnating his wife while on duty). Eight years later, Poe is paroled, and thrown on a cargo plane with the worst criminals the system’s ever seen, from Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom (Malkovich) to serial killer Garland Greene (Buscemi), who scares the daylights out of even the cons. Poe is slated to get off on the one stop the plane had scheduled, but after the cons take over the plane, Poe stays onboard in order to save his buddy Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson) and the police guard Bishop (Rachel Ticotin). US Marshal Vince Larkin (Cusack), who’s supervised the entire flight, realizes he has an ally on the plane, and tries to work with Poe to sort everything out.
Of course, I’ve told you too much, and not remotely enough. This is the kind of movie that you or I could have directed, and it would have turned out the same way, which is why it was the perfect directorial debut for Simon West, who has done nothing, and I mean nothing, of merit since (“The General’s Daughter,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” and that god-awful remake of “When a Stranger Calls”). The guitar-heavy rock score, by Trevor Rabin (of Yes fame, natch), adds the perfect dose of kitsch to the goings-on. And then there is Cage’s laughable Alabama accent, which is odd given his magnificent accent work as H.I. McDunnough in “Raising Arizona.” Gosh, it seems that there’s nothing but faults with this movie…
…and yet, for all its flaws, “Con Air” is giddy, crazy fun. Malkovich has to utter some of the worst lines in his acting career – “If your dick jumps out of your pants, you jump out of this plane” springs to mind – and Dave Chappelle has to make a terribly dated Ebonics joke. But Rosenberg’s dialogue is by and large snappy and funny. (When Cyrus jokingly asks the guard what the in-flight movie is, the guard says, “You’ll love it, Cyrus. It’s called, ‘I’ll Never Make Love to a Woman on the Beach Again,’ followed by ‘No More Steak for Me, Ever.’”) Cage is the rock of the movie, with a performance that is both sober and sly, the straight man amidst all the chaos that dutifully dodges fireball after fireball in order to “save the fuckin’ day.” Cusack and Malkovich are clearly having fun, and one wonders why they didn’t do another action movie, like Cage, Rhames and Buscemi did. “Con Air” also has one of the most solid supporting casts you will find, from Williamson and Ticotin to Danny Trejo as rapist Johnny 23 and Tom Waits soundalike Nick Chinlund as Billy Bedlam. And let us not forget M.C. Gainey, who would find success later in his career as the naked guy in “Sideways” and the sometimes bearded Other on “Lost,” as the gonzo pilot Swamp Thing.
This new release of “Con Air” is called the unrated extended edition, but don’t let ‘unrated’ make you think ‘more violent.’ The added scenes, about seven minutes’ worth, are all dialogue, but they’re good ones, especially Ticotin’s justification for choosing her cat over her husband. We also get to see Garland Greene satisfy his blood lust, something that’s only talked about in the original. These extras are probably not worth upgrading an older DVD of the movie, since there are no other extras to speak of (really, is Simon West so busy that he couldn’t have done a commentary on the only good movie he’ll ever make?), but if you have been blowing off buying the DVD, the extra scenes actually improve the movie by, surprise, giving the characters some extra depth. Or, in some cases, depth.
“Con Air” is movie escapism at its finest; the setup is preposterous, and the characters have no basis in reality, but the sheer joy exuded by all concerned is wildly contagious. It’s okay for a movie to be a little dumb, as long as it’s smart about the right things, and few movies demonstrate that better than “Con Air.” Don’t forget to put the bunny back in the box.(4 / 5)