Sunday, June 24, 2012

"Con Air" (1997)

Starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack and John Malkovich
Written by Scott Rosenberg
Directed by Simon West
Rated R - Violence, language
Running Time: 115 Minutes

I recently noted that "Air Force One" was the kind of turn-off-your-brain action picture that can be a ton of fun.  While both can be labeled part of the "Die Hard on a plane" subgenre, "Con Air" makes "Air Force One" look like an intelligent Oscar-worthy film.

U.S. Army Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) is sent off to do a dime after killing a man in a barfight.  Eight years later, he's finally being released to go home to his loving wife (Monica Potter) and meet his daughter for the first time.  He hitches a ride home on a US Marshal Service prisoner transport plane carrying some of the nation's worst fiends.

Once airborne, the cons stage a well-planned siege of the plane.  Led by Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich), the convicts take control of the plane, killing several of the guards and taking the rest hostage.  Cyrus and his cronies, including Nathan "Diamond Dog" Jones (Ving Rhames), William "Billy Bedlam" Bedford (Nick Chinlund), Joe "Pinball" Parker (Dave Chappelle), are being paid to hijack the plane in order to spring South American drug lord Francisco Cindino (Jesse Borego).  Cindino has promised them all a large sum of money and save haven in a non-extradition country for their help in his escape.  The plane is also carrying a number of other cons who aren't in on the plan, but are more than eager to join in when they see what's going on, like serial rapist John "Johnny-23" Baca (Danny Trejo), but also a few more than content to simply sit by and see what happens next, like the quietly insane Garland Greene (Steve Buscemi).

Poe's best friend on the inside, Mike "Baby-O" O'Dell (Mykelti Williamson), is diabetic and starts to go into shock.  Unable to leave his friend behind, Poe convinces Cyrus and the others that he wants to go along with their plans, saying he's got 15 years left and nothing more to live for than the hope of freedom on a beach.  He vows to save Baby-O and to protect the lives of the captured guards.  Meanwhile, on the ground, US Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) must figure out how to keep hot-headed DEA Agent Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney) from simply blowing the plane out of the sky, killing Poe and the other hostages.

"Con Air" is an almost relentlessly stupid movie.  The characters are all over the top, the one-liners are cheesy as hell, the special effects are ridiculous, the score is full of obnoxious wailing guitars... there's not a single moment of this movie you're supposed to take seriously.  That, of course, is totally fine by me.

Nicolas Cage breezes through the entire movie with a lightweight air, spouting his terrible quips with a lazy and awful southern accent.  He's clearly not taking this role very seriously, but interestingly, he manages to keep a straight face rather than go off into one of his crazed, wild-eyed stints.  His deadpan delivery of pretty much every line in the entire movie is hilarious, especially towards the end when things are going entirely off the rails.

John Malkovich is clearly having a ton of fun.  Cyrus the Virus chews the scenery constantly, spouting off even more cheesy one-liners, even at one point threatening a stuffed bunny.  He's the complete opposite of Cage in this film, not once seeming bored or lifeless, but instead going for the crazy.  He shares fine chemistry with his other villainous cohorts, and they all get to have a blast throwing these terrible lines at each other with a wink and a nod.  Malkovich seems to know how stupid this film is, and revels in it.

Steve Buscemi gets to act extremely creepy as serial killer Garland Greene, giving some rather droll but hilarious speeches about the nature of insanity and bragging about his crimes as though they were nothing more than his Sunday plans.  Dave Chappelle has a few silly scenes as Pinball, doing his usual schtick.

Cusack and Meaney get to play off of each other in an antagonistic manner, but their scenes always seem to fall short of whatever's going on aboard the plane.  It's hard to care about either character (or, really, I guess any of them) and their antics aren't particularly entertaining.  The script seems to want to make Larkin into the Al Powell for Poe's John McClane, but it fails pretty spectacularly at doing so.  That Cage and Cusack have almost no chemistry together doesn't help, even though they actually only have two scenes where they even speak to each other.

The action sequences in the film are, of course, mostly just big, dumb pyrotechnic displays.  There's lots of shouting and punching and gunfire and explosions.  It's noisy and even a little obnoxious, but it's all so silly and stupid that you have to just laugh and roll with it.  The third act is just one more absurd action sequence after another, it barely stops to take a breath even to toss out more hilariously lame one-liners.

Somehow, despite all the stupidity, "Con Air" manages to be fun.  Or perhaps because of the stupidity, rather than in spite of it.  Either way, this is one of those dumb 90s actioners that remains entertaining over a decade later.