| Con Air


Simon West

USA, 1997


Review by Rumsey Taylor

Posted on 23 July 2009

Source iTunes rental

Categories Favorites: The Action Movie

Con Air is full of explosions, some of the most transparently expositional dialogue ever1, and pornographic action photography—in other words, it is a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. It is as loud, obvious, and rambunctious as any action movie ever made, peer only to other films Bruckheimer has helmed. It’s the sort of film that has a trademarked, illustrative logotype - which looks best overlain atop an explosion - in lieu of a title.

Despite its many derivations Con Air remains distinctive within Bruckheimer’s catalogue for its incredible ensemble cast: leads Nic Cage (“Ima save the fuckin’ day”), John Malkovich (“That’s my fuckin’ plane!”), and John Cusack (“I’m not gonna STAND HERE and LISTEN to THIS SHIT!”), with supporting performances from Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, and Dave Chapelle. Each scene transitions impatiently into the next and contains some sort of explosion or pivotal plot development, as the action moves from the road to the sky, through the Arizona desert, and ultimately to the Las Vegas strip. It is resolutely not boring.

It’s easy, if not warranted to disparage a big, dumb movie such as this, but despite its myriad hammy performances and hostile disregard for realism—god, it really is worth a moment to elaborate on these points: John Malkovich, for one, plays Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom, his name a tribute to Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lector, and his performance arguably the most elaborated piece of acting he’s ever done, rival only to his Russian gambler Teddy KGB in Rounders. He says things like, “Gimme that gun,” and you’re to think he’s the most dangerous criminal on board. Paradoxically he’s one of the most charismatic characters, and the movie’s at its best when he keeps talking, because half of what he says harkens to his incredible criminal record, describing a man who’s infinitely more hostile:

Thirty-nine years old, twenty-five of them spent in our institutions. But he’s bettered himself inside. Earned two degrees, including his juris doctorate. He also killed eleven fellow inmates, incited three riots, and escaped twice. Likes to brag that he killed more men than cancer.

Malkovich’s Cyrus only prefaces Nic Cage’s Cameron Poe. We meet him and his awesomely beautiful, deceptively six months’ pregnant wife in the opening scene. She’s ogled by some drunken townsmen, he valiantly defends her, accidentally killing one of the townsmen, etc. Flash-forward eight years, on the eve of his release, and he’s grown a mop of sweaty, unshampooed hair, a perfect two-day beard, and motherfucking shit is he ripped. He’s become an action hero in the span of his sentence, armed with precisely the sort of determination that will ensure his life on a plane full of the most reprehensible criminals in the world: to see his awesomely beautiful wife again, and his awesomely beautiful new daughter for the first time.

Cage’s physical appearance and visible determination found much of Poe’s utility, but his dialogue, bathed generously in Southern inflection, ensures his top billing. Here are a few standout lines: “I’m not leavin’ withat chew,” “Buckle up!,” and perhaps the film’s most renowned imperative, “Put the bunny back in the box.” Cage’s is a performance of such unequivocal ridiculousness that you listen and watch excitedly to everything he says or does.

Finally, amidst Malkovich and Cage’s carnivorous scenery-chewing, is, incredibly, John Cusack. If ever there was an example of ununderstandable casting, it is this. John Cusack, the beloved, professionally aimless Lloyd Dobbler, the romantic sociopath Rob Gordon, and the approachable romantic lead in a legion of other roles (none of them in action movies) is here the least patient man in the world. A U.S. Marshall bent on getting Cyrus back in jail, he is a hyper-responsive barometer of urgency. He is never patient—and this is the same actor who once wooed Diane Court by standing beneath her bedroom window for the entirety of Peter Gabriel’s five-minute-and-twenty-one-second “In Your Eyes.”

So it’s easy, if not warranted to disparage a big, dumb movie such as this, but despite its myriad hammy performances and hostile disregard for realism, it remains amazingly straightforward in its interpretability. Poe’s determination to see his wife again, and the super-human diplomacy it produces, is justified. Likewise Cyris’ endeavoring for freedom, albeit in the least subdued manner imaginable, is understandable because he’s established as not only the most conniving villain in the world, but one with characteristically elaborate means; he’s less likely to shoot you than he is to pry off your flesh with his fingers while verbally exclaiming his reasoning for doing so. Con Air is in all an organized chaos, you see, a collection of action figures with only the craziest goals: one to hijack a plane full of criminals and pilot it discreetly to freedom; one to catch up with said plane in a convertible, armed with only a semi-automatic pistol; and one to recapture the plane, dispense with the villains in a manner commensurate with their crimes, and to see his family again. Nobody reading this can rationalize these goals, but they’re sure that at least one of these characters will succeed in precisely what he resolves to do.

  1. “It’s a ‘transponder’—it’ll take us to exactly where they’re headed!”
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