Touchstone Pictures / Jerry Bruckheimer Films
Directed by Simon West
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer
Screenplay by Scott Rosenberg
The surest sign that a movie is boring me or isn’t making sense to me is this: I start rewriting it in my mind while I’m watching it and recently I watched CON AIR for the first time since it originally hit the theatres back in 1997. I thought maybe the distance of a few years would make the movie play better and to be honest, it does. I had previously dismissed CON AIR as a typically noisy Bruckheimer production that was all about the explosions and skimped on the plot. Well, it’s still a noisy Bruckheimer production but I found that I enjoyed it far more watching it now, mainly because of the performances of a number of actors who have since become really big names in the business. Guys like John Malkovitch, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Dave Chappelle and Danny Trejo who have since blown up big time in the movie business and all who have wonderful roles in this big budget action fest. But I think that CON AIR missed the plane story wise and I’ll get into that later. For now, let’s stick with what the movie actually is about:
Cameron Poe (Nicholas Cage) is a decorated Army Ranger who returns home after serving a tour of distinguished service overseas. The Army has done some good for Cameron, made him grow up a little as he used to be a wild kid who wasn’t really bad but just had a knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That knack still follows him as he gets into a fight with three drunks who were hitting on his wife Tricia (Monica Potter) and during the fight; Cameron kills one of the drunks. I guess the testimony of his wife didn’t mean a thing to the judge because Cameron is sentenced to 10 years in prison but he’s paroled out in 8 as he’s been a model prisoner, encouraged to keep his nose clean by the letters written to him by his wife and his daughter Casey (Landry Allbright)
Cameron and his cellmate Baby O (Mykelti Williamson) are placed aboard a massive transport plane that is a prison with wings nicknamed The Jailbird. Cameron’s going home and Baby O is being transferred to a minimum security prison and they’re naturally concerned when they find out that most of the other prisoners on the plane are some of the most dangerously psychotic criminals in the country, being transferred to a brand new escape proof prison: Cyrus The Virus (John Malkovitch) who is totally insane and totally brilliant. Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames) is a black militant revolutionary who wrote New York Times best selling books describing his revolutionary manifesto. Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo) is a serial rapist boasting 23 tattoos of roses on his body for each one of his victims who confides that his name should actually be Johnny 600 but it doesn’t have the same ring. Garland Green (Steve Buscemi) is a serial killer who slaughtered 37 people and drove across three states wearing the head of one of his female victims for a hat. Billy Bedlam (Nick Chinlund) caught his wife in bed with another man. He didn’t lay a finger on her. He drove four towns over to where her family lived and killed her mother, father, brothers, sister, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, in-laws and all their pets. Pinball Parker (Dave Chappelle) is a junkie con man grifter whose joking nature hides a sick violent streak.
What we’ve got here is a collection of maniacs that have no business being together and it wasn’t surprising to me that such a collection of such brilliantly deranged minds successfully take over the plane. Cyrus has made a deal with another prisoner on the plane: a Columbian drug lord who has promised Cyrus and his crew that if they get him back to Columbia, they can live like kings, free of extradition. Now if I had written CON AIR, I’d have had the plane make it to Columbia and then have had Cyrus and crew double crossed by the Columbian drug lord and spent the rest of the movie having this deliciously goofy cast of murderers wreak bloody revenge in an orgy of mayhem and violence. Instead we get U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) and DEA Agent Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney) flying around in attack choppers trying to find The Jailbird and recapture Cyrus and crew. Cameron has his hands full trying to find insulin for Baby O who is rapidly going into shock and trying to prevent the only female guard on the plane (Rachel Ticontin) from being raped by Johnny 23.
CON AIR was one of three high-energy action movies Nicholas Cage made after winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ and in my opinion it’s the weakest of the three. ‘The Rock’ and ‘Face/Off’ were much better in terms of story and acting since Cage’s Cameron Poe is the least interesting character in the movie and spends most of his time trying to find insulin for his buddy as well as continually talking Cyrus and Diamond Dog out of killing a trio of prison guards being held as hostages. It isn’t until the end of the movie where The Jailbird crashes in Las Vegas where Cage goes into full-blown action hero mode and has to chase down Cyrus and Diamond Dog.
It’s the rest of the cast that walks off with the movie in terms of acting. John Cusack is always a delight in anything he does and he looks as if he’s having a great time as he and Colm Meany bicker and argue about how to deal with the situation. Few actors play a psychotic genius better than John Malkovitch and he has 90% of the good lines in the movie. Steve Buscemi’s character makes a really cool entrance, being brought to the plane in an armored car in which he’s strapped down like Hannibal Lector with a dozen guards covering him with automatic weapons. There’s a really strange scene halfway through the movie involving Buscemi’s character and a little girl he meets in a trailer park and they have a tea party while singing “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hand” that really makes no sense and I have no idea why it’s there and it’s nowhere near as good as Buscemi’s final scene in the movie which again, reminded me of Hannibal Lector and the last scene of ‘Silence Of The Lambs’
CON AIR has some spectacular action sequences involving the giant prison plane, including the finale where it crashes on The Strip in Las Vegas and it’s one of those scenes where you have no idea how they filmed it since it’s convincing as hell but ultimately that’s all it is, one spectacular action sequence after another that have no real meaning other than spectacle for spectacle’s sake. So should you see CON AIR? If you’re an action movie junkie you most likely have seen it already. I’ve got friends of mine who claim they watch it four or five times a year but even once a year would be more than enough for me. The real entertainment value of CON AIR comes from watching Malkovitch, Rhames, Chappelle, Trejo and the other lunatics on the plane and the efforts of Cusack and Meany to capture them. The movie should have concentrated on them and cut Cage’s character out of CON AIR altogether. Now that would be a helluva ride indeed.