Today is July 14. For many, it’s Bastille Day, when the poor and downtrodden of France rallied against the monarchy and stormed the bastille. It’s also the same day many of the events on which Con Air is set.
I don’t know if Scott Rosenberg did this intentionally when he wrote the script. But I’d like to think he did because the contents of the movie are about convicts rallying against law enforcement in a silly parody of action movies.
Con Air was released in the summer of 1997. Four years earlier, a movie called Last Action Hero starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, produced and directed by John McTiernan (who gave us the first and third Die Hard) and co-written by Shane Black, most famous for creating the Lethal Weapon movies and also writing The Last Boy Scout, which functioned almost like a parody.
The movie bombed at the box office and critics ripped it to shreds. Over the years, it’s found some fans and forgiveness but the problem was that movie took itself too seriously and had a plot that really wasn’t interesting. It didn’t help that Schwarzenegger seemed to be playing second banana to an annoying young kid.
Con Air seems to be everything that Last Action Hero was supposed to be, a mindless two-hours of explosions, unlimited ammunition and a plot that is easy to understand. Nicolas Cage, fresh off his Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas, plays Cameron Poe, an Army Ranger sergeant who arrives in Mobile, Ala., to reunite with his wife, Tricia (Monica Potter before her Julia Roberts phase), who is pregnant with their first child.
The homecoming doesn’t last long as some rowdy bar patrons at the place Tricia works cause problems not once but twice leading Cameron to accidentally kill one of them, played by Kevin Gage, by hitting him the nose causing the bone to go into his brain, even though this is medically impossible. But since it was used in Scout, maybe Rosenberg is poking a jab at Black.
What happens next is a set up that doesn’t legally make sense. People witnessed the bar scuffle. Did the cops even bother to question the dead guy’s accomplices? This was made before Stand Your Ground but still, even if Cameron pled guilty to manslaughter, he would have done so knowing exactly what his sentence would be and the judge would have to be okay with it as well as the prosecution. And since Cameron is in the military, why is he sent to a federal prison instead of military?
By now, it doesn’t make any sense, but it’s not supposed to as we get a nice montage of Cameron making friends with a fellow inmate, Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson) by sharing Hostess Snowball cakes with him and reading letters from his daughter, Casey. Cage plays Cameron with a thick southern accent that suggest a bad Elvis impersonation.
Scheduled for parole and release, him and Baby-O, are placed on a plane going from California to Alabama where a huge federal prison is located. On the flight are James Bond-like villains that seem to need Star Wars-like back stories.
John Malkovich plays Cyrus “The Virus” a well educated but savage and psychotic madman who has orchestrated an attempt to take over the plane with Nathan “Diamond Dog” Jones (Ving Rhames) a radical Black Guerrilla criminal and murderer and Pinball Parker (Dave Chappelle), a two-bit hood. Also on the plane are a violent rapist Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo) who sets his eyes on a female prison guard Sally Bishop (Rachel Ticotin) and there is Billy Bedlam Bedford (Nick Chinlund) la psychotic killer, who immediately suspects Cameron is lying to them. Chinlund had also played a bad guy in Lethal Weapon 3 a few years earlier.
Their plan is to touch down in Carson City, Nev. to pick up a Latino drug kingpin, Franciso Cindino (Jesse Berrego) under the idea Cindino will help all felons find safe passage to a non-extradition country for their help. Also in Carson City, the felons after overtaking the plane have felon “Swamp Thing” (M.C. Gainey) as their pilot and a deranged serial killer Garland Greene (Steve Buscemi) known as the “Marietta Mangler” who arrives in an armored vehicle in an elaborate security harness that makes what they put Dr. Hannibal Lecter in look primitive.
Things go wrong in Carson City as those on the ground get wind, thanks to Cameron, that the guards are felon. You see, the DEA sent an undercover agent, Sims (Jose Zuniga) on board so he could be set next to Cindino. But Sims’ supervisor, Malloy, an arrogant hothead played by Colm Meaney, hides a small handgun in Sims’ prison uniform. And as Sims tries to stop the takeover, he is killed in the process.
What happens next is the typical action movie and I’m giving away too much for anyone who might enjoy it. John Cusack appears as a U.S. Marshal named Vince Larkin who suspects that Cameron may have helped because of his military background as well as the fact Cameron had a chance to get off the plane in Carson City but didn’t.
So, you guessed it. There’s a lot of screaming and arguing back and forth between Larkin and his superiors who have sided with Sims the plane needs to be shot down. The plane lands in a deserted airfield where everyone learns what Cindino’s real plans are.
And things go boom! A lot.
There’s a silliness to the movie with how it presents itself. I’m reminded of the line from This Is Spinal Tap where a character says that there is a fine line between stupid and clever. On the surface, this looks like a stupid movie. At one point, Cyrus holds a stuffed bunny by the ears and threatens to shot it. That stuffed bunny becomes such a source of the plot, it’s a shame there isn’t an award category at the Oscars for inanimate objects.
And even though he’s supposed to be one of the most dangerous men in the world, Buscemi plays Greene with a simple soft spoken voice as he spews psychobabble. Of all the cons on the plane, he is one of the few who doesn’t pick up a gun or become aggressive or violent.
Con Air isn’t trying to wink at the camera the way Last Action Hero did. At one point, Cameron and Baby-O discuss the events of what’s happening on the plane and Cameron says “Somehow they managed to get every creep and freak in the universe on this one plane.” In a way, it’s a meta reference to the way movies often seem to have their own Legion of Doom working together.
In reality, I don’t think law enforcement would risk putting so many hardened criminals in the same prison, nonetheless a plane.
But what does it matter?
A lot of things in movies don’t often reflect reality. When was the last time you turned on the TV and immediately found a news report of what you needed to see. Even gun silencers don’t work the way they’re shown to work.
It’s a movie that is just two hours of mindless entertainment. If you’re going to watch a movie like Con Air, you expect one or two scenes of characters running toward the camera as things explode. Fights and gunfire being exchanged as electric guitar riffs play on the soundtrack.
Speaking of that soundtrack, Trisha Yearwood’s “How Do I Live” got a lot of use and heavy play in this movie. After this movie was released, I found many women singing this song aloud. Nearly 25 years later, it’s still considered one of the best songs from a movie, as well as one of the worst.
And that’s the joy of a movie of Con Air, you can like it and hate it at the same time. I’m surprised some of the cast were in this movie. Meaney had a small but crucial role in John Huston’s The Dead which was based on James Joyce’s short novel. Then there is Cusack and Malkovich, who were known for appearing in more serious roles. I think it’s crazy they both later did Being John Malkovich. Maybe they did this movie to get that movie made.
And Cage, who had since become almost a joke with his acting roles, is having a helluva time playing a Southern Jesus Meets Elvis Impersonator role. Even Cusack and Malkovich have appeared in less than stellar movies since this. Yet, here, they seem to be having fun.
Too many movies have been made where you can tell no one is having a great time and it shows. I feel everyone got up every day of filming glad to be making this. Maybe that is why they ended it with the acting credits showing snippets of all the characters smiling and laughing throughout like it’s the opening to a 1980s-1990s TGIF sitcom. You almost expect to see Jeff Franklin listed as a producer.