With the constant deluge of new movies being released either in theaters or onto DVD and Blu-ray, it often proves difficult to find the time to revisit older favorites that haven’t been watched in quite awhile. This was most recently the case with the 1997 action hit “Con Air”. I remembered thoroughly enjoying this movie upon its release to theaters 12 years ago, and having re-watched it again, I discovered that I still enjoy it just as much to this day.
“Con Air” is the story of parolee Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), a former Army Ranger, who’s placed into the middle of an extremely deadly situation when the prison airplane that he’s aboard is overtaken by the other prisoners. Now, Poe must overcome seemingly insurmountable odds against some of the worst society has to offer in order to make it home to his family in time for his daughter’s birthday.
This movie proudly features all the elements that are crucial for any successful blockbuster action flick. From the relentless pacing, hard-hitting action sequences, clearly defined roles of good and evil, and even a little bit of humor, “Con Air” ticked off every box on the action movie checklist. Over the course of the film, the proceedings never felt tired, boring or lacking in entertainment value. Of course, one would expect nothing less when Hollywood’s most prolific action film producer, Jerry Bruckheimer (“Armageddon”) is overseeing the project.
Written by Scott Rosenberg (“Gone in 60 Seconds”) and directed by Simon West (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”) the film moves along at a very brisk pace from start to finish. The execution from page to screen, is that of a smash-mouth actioner that is fully aware of who its audience is and what they expect, all the while delivering in full.
Rosenberg’s script would never be recognized as being one of the great dramatic screenplays of our time, not that anyone would expect such an achievement from this type of film. That being said, the script is jam-packed with sharp, quick-witted dialogue and engaging characters that draw you in no matter how depraved they may be. If a writer can make characters that represent the basest criminals of our society interesting, and dare I say entertaining to watch, then everything else should just fall into place. On the flip side, perhaps it’s not a good thing to make these types of people entertaining to audiences. Maybe the fact that something like this is acceptable is just another example of how far our society’s moral compass has degraded. Either way, that’s a debate for another time and place.
In my estimation, for an action film to succeed, it’s not enough that there be action aplenty. The characters, be they the heroes or villains, need to be more than merely one-dimensional clichés. There must always be a purpose driving both sides of the movie for it to endure over time with audiences. If there is no drive or reason behind the events unfolding: then, don’t bother with releasing the movie to theaters. Instead, let the movie die a slow and painful death alongside the plethora of Steven Seagal movies that no cares to remember. Not to mention, there must also be some element within the various players (primarily the hero or heroes) that connects with the audience enough for us to be willing to go along for the potentially wild ride that lies ahead. In all of this, “Con Air” succeeds, which is why myself and numerous others still find the movie just as entertaining after all these years.
Speaking of the characters within this film, they of course would be nothing if it wasn’t for the myriad of talent employed to bring them all to life. Leading the cast is Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage (“Leaving Las Vegas”) as former Army Ranger turned unfortunate victim of circumstance, Cameron Poe. Cameron is the epitome of what it means to be a hero no matter the cost. Honestly, he’s a borderline cliché of stoic heroes past. He’s a man whom through training has been honed into becoming the perfect weapon; conversely, he has the proverbial heart of gold and will do anything to protect his friends. Despite the familiarity, Cage portrays Poe as a hero conflicted by his desire to reunite with his family; however, he feels honor bound by his sense of duty to stand his ground against seemingly overwhelming odds. It is this inner-conflict, along with his dry wit and clear compassion for others on display that allows Nic to elevate his role beyond the one-dimensional character he could have been.
The supporting cast of characters is an eclectic collection of talented performers from John Malkovich (“The Man in the Iron Mask”) to Ving Rhames (“Mission: Impossible”) to Steve Buscemi (“Reservoir Dogs”). Each supporting cast member clearly enjoys their time onscreen, especially those portraying the various criminals.
Veteran actor John Malkovich could have gone extremely overboard with his portrayal as Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, a man whom, as described in the movie, “…is a poster child for the criminally insane.” Yet, Malkovich merely gets to the edge of overacting before reining his performance back in. John delivers a character that is intriguing, disturbed, and above all, devoid of morals. He’s a killer without mercy, complete with a sardonic wit that makes you cringe just a little every time you laugh at one of his comments.
Alongside John in the criminal cavalcade are Ving Rhames and Steve Buscemi, as a militant raging against anything and everything and a cannibalistic serial killer respectively. Rhames is entertaining as the man known as Diamond Dog; sadly though, we never really get to see what makes his character tick. Unlike Cyrus, Diamond Dog is relegated to merely playing second fiddle in both the story and as a villain. A little more time with this character could have provided the story with even more depth and intrigue, but we’ll have to make do with what we got.
As for Steve Buscemi, what can I say other than the man’s physical appearance (perhaps slightly accentuated for the role) is nearly perfect for the deranged serial killer, Garland Greene. His character was one that could have been taken too far into Hannibal Lecter territory, and there is one scene that introduces the possibility; thankfully, Scott Rosenberg had the smarts to not go that route. While taking Garland to that level of evil onscreen would have lent the movie an even more serious tone, the end result would have been detrimental to the film. The decision would have thrust the film into such a dark territory that it could have potentially lost its commercial appeal and resulted in a weaker performance at the box office.
Of course, as is the case with all movies, all of these elements alone cannot make for a thoroughly entertaining experience. To finish the experience, you need a director capable of harnessing all of the loose elements together to create something worthwhile for audiences to enjoy. For this film, former commercial director and first-time film director Simon West (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”) seemed to be the ideal man for the job.
As a director of TV commercials, Simon undoubtedly knew the importance of grabbing an audience’s attention from the get-go and never letting up. A trait which I believe benefited him greatly on this film. Despite his background, Simon seemed to restrain himself from rushing the story along in order to get to the more thrilling aspects of the film. By doing so he allowed the audience time to get to know his characters somewhat before thrusting the proceedings into high-gear. Although, I do wish a little more time could have been spent on expanding upon Cameron’s time as an Army Ranger or exploring a few of the other main criminal characters. Even with that slight drawback, the film, as it is, stands far above so many other action films out there.
Finally, “Con Air” is an extremely entertaining action film rife with surprisingly entertaining characters, humor, action, and even some drama. If you’re a fan of all those crappy Steven Seagal Direct-to-DVD movies (or any of the others that are just like his) then do yourself a massive favor and pop this movie in the next time you feel like watching an action flick.
“Con Air” is rated R for violence and language.