Touchstone Pictures // 1997 // 115 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Mike Jackson (Retired) // June 13th, 2000
"Somehow they managed to get every creep and freak in the universe on this one plane."
Perhaps this review should be subtitled "In Defense of the Big, Loud, Dumb Hollywood Action Movie."
I like using analogies, so indulge me for a moment. Let's take relationships. There's some relationships that you put a lot of thought into, that you lay awake wrestling over in your head, that you want to build to last. The "will you still need me when I'm sixty-four" relationships. Then, there's the flings that last only as long as you're enjoying them. You don't sit around pondering them; you just enjoy. If Fight Club or The Sixth Sense were grow-old-with-this-person relationships that require some brain power, then Con Air is definitely a one-night stand where you check your brain while checking into the Motel 6. Both are good in their own way, but one is built to last and one is built for fun on a Friday night. Movies like Con Air will be enjoyed in inverse proportion to how much thought you put into them. In other words, the more you think about it, the less enjoyable it will be.
I would group Con Air with Anaconda, Spawn, and Lost In Space. Even though I loathed all three of those movies, I know people who liked them, and, when pressed to think about it, they probably like them for the same reasons I like Con Air. You must embrace its campiness, ignore its implausibilities, and simply go along with the ride.
Con Air is another in a long line of thrill-ride action movies produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Along with his late collaborator Don Simpson, Bruckheimer perfected the summer popcorn action movie. A short list of his productions includes Top Gun, Days Of Thunder, Bad Boys (the Will Smith/Martin Lawrence version), The Rock, and Armageddon. His latest venture is Gone In Sixty Seconds. It's in theatres as I write this. I haven't seen it yet, but it appears to be a movie built entirely of car chases, and that can't be half bad.
The hero of Con Air is a man named Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage -- Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas, The Rock). Poe was an Alabama hillbilly thug, straightened out by a stretch as a U.S. Army Ranger. On the night he comes home, he gets in a brawl defending his wife's honor. He kills one of his assailants. He spends ten years in prison. In the meantime, his wife has his baby. Poe never sees his daughter, and only knows her through photographs and letters.
Finally, he is paroled and can come home to his wife and daughter. For the trip home, he is flown on a U.S. Marshall Service aircraft. Unfortunately for him, the plane is also flying "every creep and freak in the universe" to a new maximum-security prison in Alabama. No sooner has the plane left the ground than the prisoners have escaped and taken control of the plane.
The ringleader is Cyrus Grissom (John Malkovich -- In The Line Of Fire, Being John Malkovich). "Cyrus The Virus" is cold, heartless, ruthless, and (according to his last psychological exam) crazy. His henchmen include Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames -- Pulp Fiction, Mission: Impossible), a black militant, Pinball (Dave Chappelle, Blue Streak), a "two-bit Negro crack-head" (sorry, that's only a direct quote...it offends my politically-correct sensibilities too), and Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo -- Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn), a man with a tattoo on his arm chronicling his rape conquests.
On the ground, attempting to bring the situation under control is Vince Larkin (John Cusack -- Say Anything..., High Fidelity), the Federal Marshall who was in charge of the prisoner transfer flight. Opposing him is Duncan Malloy (Colm Meany -- Far And Away, Star Trek: The Next Generation). Malloy is a Drug Enforcement Agency agent. One of his men was on the plane undercover, trying to extract information from a drug kingpin. The two men have wildly different methods. Larkin wants the conflict to end peacefully, preserving the lives of the guards who are now hostages. Malloy wants to blast the plane out of the sky.
The government agents don't even find out about the in-air coup until Cyrus has the audacity to make a scheduled stop for another prisoner transfer. While the prisoners had been taking over the plane, several inmates had been killed -- conveniently, the ones who were supposed to get off the plane at the stop. Poe has a chance to be one of the people getting off, but he stays to help a diabetic friend who is close to dying because he can't get an insulin shot. Poe manages to alert the authorities nonetheless.
I hate it when reviewers give away too much of the plot, so let me give a brief list of what you see after that point. There's a massive shoot-out at an abandoned airfield, and "Con Air" ends up crash-landing on the strip in Las Vegas. Poe and Larkin save the day, Cyrus won't be back for a sequel, and Poe is reunited with his wife and little girl. Sure, now you know the end, but did you think anything less would happen?
The one thing that saves Con Air from lameness is the acting. Sure, it's hammy, but it's what makes the movie fun. It appears that Nicolas Cage's sole intention was to play a buffed-out version of H.I. McDonnough, his character from Raising Arizona. He has the same drawl, the same stringy hair, only he can take on an entire plane full of hardened criminals without breaking a sweat. John Cusack is John Cusack. I'll bet there's not many marshals who get away with dressing in linen slacks and wearing Birkenstocks, but Cusack's a likeable enough guy to make it work. The two irresistible presences in the movie are John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi. Malkovich proves in this film why he's worthy of having an entire movie named after him. He chews up the scenery. He spits out every line with a cold, calculating stare. This is the guy who can say "nougat" and make it sound disturbing. He's perfect. I didn't mention Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs, Fargo) in my synopsis above, because he really doesn't figure into the plot in any significant way. Buscemi plays a psychopathic serial killer in the Hannibal Lechter mold. Mostly, he sits around, smiling in the most unnerving way, and does several things that seem very out of character for a man who drove through two states wearing a lady's head as a hat. It's his scenes that are the highlight of the movie to me.
Con Air was one of Disney's early DVD releases. You can guess what that means: it's non-anamorphic and contains no extras. The movie is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen. Overall, it's not a bad picture -- it's pretty good, in fact, but it could have benefited from anamorphic enhancement. Colors are accurate, and shadow detail is excellent. The picture does seem to exhibit too much edge enhancement at times, but not to the point of being distracting. The rear channels of the Dolby Digital 5.1 track are used frequently for directional effects -- plane fly-bys, bullets flying everywhere, et cetera. Deep, rich bass is sent to all the channels to accompany the frequent and gratuitous explosions. The extras consist of two theatrical trailers.
Fortunately, the Disney/Buena Vista megalith has gotten its DVD act together since this early release. That leaves me with little to complain about.
Con Air is consistently the movie I pull out of my collection when I feel like watching a kick-ass action flick. It's pure testosterone fun when you don't want to think about much. While the disc could be a better presentation, it's still a worthy addition to the collection of an action fan.
Disney is encouraged to continue their steps toward improving their DVD track record. Jerry Bruckheimer is encouraged to continue being the Grand Purveyor of big, loud, dumb action movies. Court adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2000 Mike Jackson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Two Theatrical Trailers
* The John Cusack Web Page
* Drug Enforcement Administration