REVIEW: Con Air (1997)

Following the recent podcast episode, some thoughts on the lasting appeal of Con Air, now over 20 years old. Just let that sink in!

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1997 was a very strong year for blockbusters The Fifth Element, Titanic and Men in Black, as well as the kind of mid budget productions like Gattaca and Copland that struggle to get made these days.

At the time, Jerry Bruckheimer Productions were a major player amongst the blockbusters, with recent hits like Bad Boys, Crimson Tide (both 1995), and The Rock (1996) . Riding off the success of the latter, with Cage’s action debut, we got Con Air. Nicholas Cage, a brilliant actor with no gauge on quality, makes his journey to the dark side complete. In just over a year after his Best Actor Oscar, he’s running from explosions, in a vest, with a mullet, in slo-mo. His choice of projects progressively got worse, with a few exceptions over the years like Adaptation (2002), Matchstick Men (2003) and Kick Ass (2010).

The film ticks off all the points of a Bruckheimer checklist, music video style visuals (flames in the rain – at night), catchy pop theme, high concept plot. The story, based off a news article, doesn’t offer much background on why Cameron Poe is imprisoned so far from home (maybe it’s a military thing) or why so many master criminals are on board.  Or even why the plane happens to have an arsenal of machine guns in case an action sequence demands it? That’s missing the point, Con Air very much has its in tongue in cheek with some very witty lines. At one point, Cage’s character even questions the ludicrousness of the situation and at another point blankly states “I’m gonna save the fucking day!”.

Cage is clearly relishing the fun of it all. Which actor wouldn’t want to be an action hero if given the chance?! He does dial down his usual eye-popping Cage-iness, instead opting for the brooding quippy type. Who knows, maybe he ran out of crazy after Face/Off? To add some character, Cage decides to go with a shaky Southern drawl, that even Forrest Gump would question.

Cage’s not alone in this camp caper, other credible actors are on hand to craft to play off Poe’s bewilderment. John Malkovich gleefully devours some ridiculous dialogue. John Cusack screams earnestly into a variety of handheld devices and character actors like Colm Meaney and Steve Buscemi all seem to be having a blast. Most other Bruckheimers are one or two man shows. Con Air is more of an ensemble piece.

There’s so many characters, they don’t have much time to make an impact. Thankfully Cusack is on hand to give the audience a top line overview of the key criminal’s records. If anyone is missed off his list, then thankfully they get the chance to be introduced via another character, “Hey aren’t you criminal x? Is it true you committed all those crimes and stuff?”

Despite being a standard Bruckheimer production, it’s a strong start for debut director Simon West. The film has a great sense of pace and visual palate which has a lasting impression. From the washed out, almost alien, desert scenes to the night time neon garishness of the Las Vegas set finale. It’s a shame West hasn’t done anything as memorable since – with Lara Croft:Tomb Raider (2001) and The Expendables 2 (2012) being his most notable efforts since.

Whilst the film has many fans, I’d argue it was the beginning of the end for the adult action blockbuster. Following Con Air, Bruckheimer films would move into more family friendly efforts like Armageddon (1998), Pirates of The Caribbean (2001 onwards) and urgh, National Treasure (2004) whilst trying to compete with the new trend of superhero films.

For me, it’s somewhere in the middle of a good Bruckheimer. Not as smart as Enemy of the State or Crimson Tide, not as fun as The Rock or Top Gun (1986), but not as silly as Armageddon (1998) or Bad Boys 2 (2003). Just remember to put the bunny back in the box.

Alternate title: Prisoners On A Plane

Coulda Woulda Shoulda: Mickey Rourke and Gary Oldman were almost cast as Cryus The Virus.

Fun Facts: Apparently John Cusack is not a fan of the film and refuses to discuss it in any interviews.