By all rights, Con Air (1997) should have been an awful waste of time – just another tired Jerry Bruckheimer testosterone action movie whose final fate should have been wedged between beer and pick-up truck ads on television. Instead, the movie cleverly sends up and celebrates nearly every action cliché in the genre. No expense is spared as Powers Boothe is enlisted to solemnly intone the virtues of the U.S. Rangers at the beginning of the movie and then has Trisha Yearwood sing a sappy love song (“How Do I Live”) over the protagonist reuniting with his wife.
U.S. Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) is due to be paroled after killing a drunk who threatened him and his wife (Julia Roberts wannabe Monica Potter). We are subjected to the typical passage of time montage documenting Poe’s stint in prison as director Simon West and the screenplay by Scott Rosenberg slyly reference a similar sequence with Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona (1987) and the prison riot scenes in Natural Born Killers (1994). No, really. The prologue clocks in at a speedy five minutes and change, economically setting up the premise. Then, the opening credits play over Poe in prison reading and writing letters to his daughter, employing every cliché in the book all with a thick as molasses Southern drawl.
Of course, Poe’s trip home isn’t going to be that easy as his knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time continues when the plane he’s on just happens to be transporting the worst criminal scum on the planet. Chief among them, Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom (John Malkovich), a serial rapist (Danny Trejo), a Black Panther-esque militant (Ving Rhames), a Hannibal Lector rip-off (Steve Buscemi), a young Dave Chappelle riffing his way through the movie as a minor criminal that incites the jailbreak, and a whole slew of mass murderers.
Naturally, the convicts get free of their restraints and take control of the plane. To make matters worse, Poe’s buddy (Mykelti Williamson) goes into insulin shock. On the ground, U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) and DEA Agent Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney) get into a heated debate about how exactly to deal with the runaway plane – Larkin wants to take it down through peaceful means while Malloy wants to shoot it out of the sky. Naturally, it’s up to Poe to do the right thing and save the day.
Clearly riffing on his psychotic assassin from In the Line of Fire (1993), albeit with a much better sense of humor, John Malkovich gets the lion’s share of the movie’s best dialogue and delivers it with his trademark scathing dry wit. He really seems to be having fun with this role. Along comes Steve Buscemi as a criminal with a revered and feared reputation and yet we never actually see him do anything to support these claims. He and Malkovich get locked into a competition to see who can deliver the best one-liner with the driest of deliveries.
Colm Meaney and John Cusack have a lot of fun bickering back and forth, as the former plays an assholish DEA agent, a typical blowhard authority figure, while the latter plays a cerebral U.S. Marshal – one of his trademark characters dropped into a slam-bang Bruckheimer action movie. Part of the fun of watching Cusack in Con Air is seeing him navigate the kind of movie he doesn’t usually do, butting heads with Bruckheimer stereotypes with often interesting results.
You have to hand it to Nicolas Cage; he certainly knows how to pick action movies that allow him to play ever so slightly left-of-center characters like The Rock (1996), where he played an anti-action hero, and Face/Off (1997), a stylish John Woo movie with an insane role reversal plot twist. In this movie, the actor looks ridiculous with his glorious mullet, taking his cue from Jean-Claude Van Damme’s similar ‘do in Hard Target (1993). With Con Air, Cage wisely plays Poe as if it were a straight-forward action movie, which is in sharp contrast to many of the larger than life characters around him. He’s gracious and smart enough to know that when everyone around him is playing larger than life characters, go the low-key route.
Getting his start in commercials, director Simon West wears his influences on his sleeve, doing his best Michael Bay impersonation as he employs oh-so dramatic slow-mo shots of badass characters walking towards the camera (a ‘90s staple – see Armageddon), our hero outrunning an explosion, and everything is gorgeously shot and edited within an inch of its life.
For a big, loud action movie, the dialogue is quite clever and, more importantly, delivered well by the cast – which, incidentally, is an incredible collection of movie stars and character actors. It is so jam-packed with talented thespians that you wonder how in the hell did the powers that be get them all to be in this movie? Con Air looks and sounds like a Bruckheimer action film but it is Rosenberg’s screenplay that is the wild card. It sets up the standard, implausible action movie premise and introduces the genre archetypes (i.e. the lone wolf protagonist with his pretty, loving wife and the criminal mastermind, etc.) and starts messing around with the formula.
Scott Rosenberg garnered a lot of buzz from his screenplay for Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995). Disney came calling and hired him to write a script. They gave him a Los Angeles Times article about a Federal Marshal program that transported inmates across the country. To research the operation, he went to Oklahoma City and spent three days on a plane with convicts. He observed, “hardened convicts at their worst. It was very unsettling, and a bit terrifying.” Rosenberg settled down to write the script, listening to a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers albums and came up with an idea about a guy sent to prison when his wife was pregnant and had never met his daughter. This freed up Rosenberg to populate the script with “the craziest motherfuckers; the most absurd dialogue and set-pieces.”
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer read Rosenberg’s script and bought it for his production company but felt that it needed to be more character-driven. He worked closely with Rosenberg to “add more dimension” to the characters and make it a story about redemption. Bruckheimer hired Simon West to direct because he had been impressed by his T.V. commercial work.
Upon completing The Rock with Nicolas Cage, Bruckheimer asked the actor to star in Con Air. With this movie, he wanted to return to a “more old-fashioned style of action movie,” and used Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) as a point of reference, playing a character with good values. To prepare for the role, he visited Folsom State Prison where he had to sign a “no hostage” clause in order to walk among hardened inmates in the Level Four lock-up. Everything was fine until he, Bruckheimer, Rosenberg and West talked to one group of inmates in the yard and not another. All hell broke loose as one inmate tried to stab another.
Cage observed that many inmates had chiseled physiques and decided to take his cue from boxer Ken Norton and “look like I could survive anything, anywhere.” To this end, he adopted a specific diet, ran five miles a day and lifted weights frequently. At one point, the studio was worried that the actor was getting too ripped, which he found amusing: “I thought, ‘Now that’s a new one – too built-up for an action movie.’” In the script, Poe wasn’t too smart, “just a skeleton of a character,” according to Cage, and made him a Southern man that idolizes his wife. He also decided to make Poe an Army Ranger to explain how he could survive on a plane without a gun. Winning an Academy Award hadn’t mellowed out the actor as West remembered, “If we were doing an intense scene, he’d howl like a banshee and he’d leap around like a banshee, too. I’d give him a minute or two and then I’d say, ‘Let’s move on, Nick.”
Con Air received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the movie three out of four stars and wrote, “The movie is essentially a series of quick setups, brisk dialogue and elaborate action sequences…assembled by first-time director Simon West…it moves smoothly and with visual style and verbal wit.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Con Air has an important secret weapon: an indie cast. All of the principals normally work in films more interesting and human than this one, which gives Con Air a touch of the subversive and turns it into a big-budget lark.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Con Air may be the closest thing yet to pure action thriller pornography. Ultimately, there’s nothing to it but thrust.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “But with a noise level so high the dialogue has to be screamed and more silly moments than sane ones, Con Air is an animated comic book put together to pound an audience into submission, not entertain it.”
Con Air works because the filmmakers take a simple set-up and expertly execute it. The movie still plugs in the usual, over-the-top set pieces. For example, a sports car is towed behind a cargo plane only to crash through a control tower and explode. Our hero’s best buddy even gets to utter a stirring soliloquy as he lies gravely injured. True to form, the ending is highly implausible and excessive even by Bruckheimer standards but you have to admire the filmmakers for going for it. There is a fascinating push and pull going on with this movie as it trots out all the usual action movie clichés while often commenting on them ironically in true ‘90s fashion – so much so that at one point, Steve Buscemi’s spooky killer even acknowledges said irony. Ultimately, what redeems Con Air – well-placed sense of irony – is, sadly, what goes missing when its sappy ending rears its ugly head, even if it tries to evoke the ending of Wild at Heart (1990). No, really.
Con Air Production Notes. 1997.
Longsdorf, Amy. “Traditional Values Drew Iconoclastic Nicolas Cage To Do Con Air.” The Morning Call. June 1, 1997.
“Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg Interview.” Kid in the Front Row. March 13, 2010.