I love Con Air. I enjoyed the first two Transformers films. Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift is my favourite movie. And there’s nothing wrong with these things. They’re enjoyable popcorn entertainment but they’re also loud, violent and, sometimes, kind of offensive. So, I understand why people don’t like them. But you’ll love Con Air when I’m done here. You will or your money back. (Disclaimer: you may want to check with HeadStuff about refund policies, don’t quote me.)
Con Air is, like any movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, self-descriptive. It’s a movie about convicts on an airplane. The convicts lead by Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich) and Nathan ‘Diamond Dog’ Jones (Ving Rhames) take over the plane and attempt to escape from US Marshals lead by Vince Larkin (Jon Cusack) and Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney). In the middle of it all is Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) who just wants to get back to his wife, Tricia, and daughter, Casey. For much of the film Poe must fight through a flying rogues gallery of rapists, murderers, and robbers.
Cheering when the bad guy dies is a common thing in action movies. Of course, it’s easier when they’re aliens or robots or monsters, but not so much when they’re human. This is where Con Air differs. There are no nice guys on-board this one-way flight to hell except for Poe, the prison guards, and Poe’s friend Baby-O. Cyrus the Virus is a crazed anarchist, Diamond Dog is a murderous gangster in the guise of a Black Nationalist, and their henchmen — Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo), a serial rapist, and mass murderer Billy Bedlam (Nick Chinlund) — are no better. Out of all of these monsters the only ambiguous one is Steve Buscemi’s serial killer Garland Greene. It is a strange testament to Buscemi’s acting abilities that he can make such a clearly unhinged and psychopathic character somewhat sympathetic.
Garland Greene is an obvious Hannibal Lecter rip-off. A character designed to cash in on the ambiguity and demonic nature of serial killers that Silence of the Lambs popularised. Certain movies sometimes have ‘that’ scene. An exchange of dialogue between two characters such as the coin toss scene in No Country for Old Men, or the final bloody outburst in There Will Be Blood. Certain scenes stick with viewers, and for me it was Garland Greene’s encounter with a young girl in a dried-out swimming pool. Ultimately, it’s what we miss in this scene that makes it so special. What did Garland say to the girl? What did the girl say to Garland? Whatever happened to Garland there leaves him a changed man and it is to the film’s credit that they kept this bizarre scene in.
Con Air is a weird film. Don’t let the Jerry Bruckheimer production credit or the all-star cast fool you, it’s a strange beast. The convicts’ pilot is called Swamp Thing for God’s sake! One just has to look at a few of the images sprinkled through this article and you’ll see what I mean. Nic Cage’s almost Messianic flowing locks. John Malkovich threatening to shoot a stuffed toy rabbit. The character Pinball (Dave Chapelle) is dumped out at thirty thousand feet as a warning that the plane has been taken over. Baby-O describes Garland Greene as so dangerous, “he makes the Manson family look like the Partridge family”. Even Ving Rhames bulldozing his way through the plane chanting “Allahu Akbar” has a surreal, ludicrous appeal. Con Air is kept airborne by its weirdness but it’s performances are the real jet fuel on the fire.
John Malkovich has appeared in very few action films. They include In the Line of Fire (for which he was Oscar nominated), RED, RED 2 and Con Air. It’s easy to see why; Malkovich is better suited to dramatic or comedic roles. However, his role in Con Air allows for some of the greatest scenery chewing in action history. To go up against scenery chomping heavyweights like Cage, Trejo and Rhames is no mean feat. Lines like “Don’t move or the bunny gets it!” or “To me you’re somewhere between a cockroach and that white stuff that accumulates at the edge of your mouth when you’re really thirsty” become malleable, threatening putty with Malkovich’s signature inflection. He’s not the only one to get options to chow down on some real zingers and post-explosion one-liners but he is definitely the film’s shining star out of a veritable galaxy.
Nic Cage films often centre around family. In Joe, he becomes a boy’s father figure. National Treasure sees him reconnect with his father. Moonstruck sees him manically fall in love with Cher and find meaning in family (yeah I know, but trust me, it works). In Con Air his character Cameron Poe just wants to see his daughter, Casey, for the first time ever. This plot point, while simple, is still incredibly sweet. Simple and sweet are often what Nic Cage does best, aside from playing undead bikers, crooked cops or obsessive-compulsive conmen. Cameron Poe’s love for Casey is represented by the stuffed rabbit toy he intends to give to her at his journeys end. It’s also one of the film’s funniest moments. When Poe finds Billy Bedlam rifling through his stuff he threateningly whispers in a flawless, yet toneless, Alabama accent “Put. The Bunny. Back in the box.” The line, like Con Air, may be equaled, but it will never be bettered.
What goes up must come down. Con Air may have touched down back in 1997 but its legacy remains aloft soaring on wings powered by adrenaline and cult status. There’s still so much left to talk about: Colm Meaney’s macho performance as the ‘Action Movie Asshole,’ the adrenaline pumping action scenes and all the other small things that make Con Air such an amazing spectacle. So next time you watch Con Air grab some popcorn, grab some boys, crack open a cold one and think of me; a poor man trying to fit a boundless love for Nic Cage, Jerry Bruckheimer, and action cinema into a thousand-word article.