Sunday, August 26, 2018

Flight of the Jailbirds: Con Air (1997) starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, and John Malkovich

[I was surprised to learn that Con Air made it into the Criterion canon, I guess alongside The Rock (1996). Perhaps, the fine people at Criterion were being a bit ironic in their choice? Perhaps, the 3 Reasons video is a fake. At any rate, here's another time capsule piece from my early days as a newspaper movie reviewer.]

I dreaded watching Con Air, chiefly 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 bucks on his own. The results are mixed, but better than I expected. In Hollywood these days, movie stars look to big moneymaking actions 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 up in a mask and a strait jacket just like Anthony Hopkins wore in Silence of the Lambs, but once Malkovich's character 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 (Cameron Poe) killing a man with his fists of steel in a bar brawl. While Poe's in jail (this sequence has a spooky resemblance to the jail scenes of Raising Arizona), we witness Poe writing repeatedly to his ultra-cute daughter and wife. There's a biblical dimension to his cartoonlike 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, Poe serenely fights for his little girl. It is really quite affecting in its emotionally manipulative way.

So, criminals hijack a convict plane, fly to a remote desert airstrip to blow up a bunch of rusty cars and trucks, and then eventually fly into the middle of Las Vegas 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 sequence, Poe drops a corpse off the 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 Las Vegas, 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 having their paycheck increased? Yes again.

Cage becomes so noble, he even finds time to save a diabetic and a female guard threatened with rape on the plane. In his mission to save these people and get his 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, it may seem stupid, but you gotta admire the technique.

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