Friday, March 27, 2009

Flight of the Jailbirds: Nicolas Cage in Con Air (1997)

[The Film Doctor continues to revisit the summer of '97 for no particular reason with this of-the-period review.]

I dreaded watching Con Air because it was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, half of the team that brought you Top Gun, Bad Boys, Days of Thunder, and the especially loathsome The Rock.  The bad boy producers Bruckheimer and Simpson specialized in these hormonal, pumped up, squealing electric guitar machismo movies.  Recently, Simpson died of a drug overdose, and so Con Air constitutes Bruckheimer's attempt to make massive action bucks on his own.  The results are mixed, but better than I expected.

In Hollywood these days, movie stars look to big moneymaking action flicks to enhance their salaries.  Val Kilmer's stock rose with the 3rd Batman.  Soon we'll see Winona Ryder as a fighting android in the fourth Alien film for the same reason.  So, given this principle of serious actors turning to pulp fiction for money, Con Air contains a convention of actors one would normally associate with much classier movies.

John Cusack plays an intellectual ranger (read wimp in this movie) who tracks the convicts' plane and spends most of his time arguing with a DEA man who only wants to blow the plane out of the sky.  John Malkovich plays a delightful criminal mastermind who gets to strut around the movie using his unusually precise speaking style to celebrate villainy.  Steve Buscemi makes a humorous appearance as a Hannibal Lector-esque mass murderer who brags about wearing the head of a little girl as a hat, but otherwise does nothing remarkable.  He shows up all zoot-suited in a mask and a strait jacket just like Anthony Hopkins wore in Silence of the Lambs, but once Malkovich sets him free to wander around the plane, you think oh, that's Steve Buscemi.  Whoopee.

Con Air begins with Nicolas Cage as a marine killing a man with his fists of steel in a bar brawl.  While he's in jail (this sequence has a spooky resemblance to the jail scenes in Raising Arizona), we witness Cage writing repeatedly to his ultra-cute blond daughter and wife.  There's a Biblical dimension to his cartoon character: he MUST survive a criminal takeover of a prison plane in order to get back to his parole and long lost family.  Even as the filmmakers pile one challenge on top of another, Cage serenely fights for his little girl.  It can be quite affecting in its emotionally manipulative way.

So, criminals hijack a convict plane, fly to a remote airstrip to blow up a bunch of rusty cars and trucks, and then eventually fly into the middle of Los Angeles at night.  The film has a luscious cinematography full of desert sun, sky, and gleaming weaponry, which, like the acting, seems way too fancy for such a silly plot.  Indeed, the movie often resembles a music video with its pounding electric guitar score, voluptuous slow motion violence, and hallucinatorily clear imagery.  In one scene, Cage drops a corpse off the plane into Carson City, and we see that corpse fall up close most of the way down, the gorgeous fluttering down of a dead con in the sun, before it lands as a joke on an older couple's car that had just been waxed.

By the time the movie gets around to its multiple climaxes/chase scenes in the colorful world of downtown Los Angeles, I found it difficult to know what to say here.  Is the film stupid, fascist, gratuitously violent, and anal-retentively macho?  Yes.  Is it also beautifully filmed cheesy fun with fine actors who all seem to enjoy enhancing their paycheck?  Yes again.  Cage becomes so noble, he even finds time to help a diabetic and a female guard threatened with rape on the plane.  In his mission to save these people and gets a little bunny toy to his daughter, he slaughters numerous bad guys put in the way of his holy mission.  As whole army battalions get blown up, Cage's search for a syringe for the diabetic resembles the quixotic quest of a man determined to carry a glass of water through a hurricane.  As in the case of the movie as a whole, it may not make sense, but you gotta admire the technique.   


hokahey said...

This film was too overblown for me. Maybe I just overdosed on excessive action and excessive Nic Cage because I saw it back-to-back with Face/Off, but I will never forget how the film sets up a real shocker with a twist - in regards to what we learn about Steve Buscemi's character. Then we see him in the yard with the little girl, sitting there staring at her with those large creepy eyes. Oh, my God!

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Hokahey,

It's funny how you remember the film better than I do. I'm amazed now that I liked anything about Con Air, but I can be swayed by compelling cinematography, and sometimes I can appreciate good trash as just trashy fun. For many bombastic blockbuster wannabes, that's the only way you can appreciate them--ironically.

Cal said...

This is one of those films that I watched a lot as a teenager but am unsure as to how I'd judge now, based on heightened cynicism.

I do recall the visually impressive moments that you mentioned, and it's an incredibly easy watch overall, but looking back on it the heroism of Nic Cage's character seems problematic. It would have been a much more interesting angle to have Cage locked in a battle of morality (he's always shown as 'above' the situation and the other convicts), and the rape thing is particularly a bit too distasteful as a plot device.

Oh, and that bunny. Dear me.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Cal.

I agree. I wonder if we can pick Con Air as the exact beginning of Nic Cage's decline? I believe it was one of his first action hero films.

Rick Olson said...

Saw -- part of -- this again just the other day. The thing that strikes me every time about Cage's performance is the absolutely cheesy Southern accent. That and how much fun Malkovich seems to be having. And those creepy Buscemi eyes.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Rick.

As much as I wanted to pan the film, both the cinematography and the caliber of the actors were hard to completely discount.