Con Air at 20: the 90s action film that remains unmatched


“Break out the fine china, chill the lemonade, tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree. Cos this boy’s coming home to his ladies. Coming home forever.”

Action cinema changed in 1999. The release of The Matrix unleashed a torrent of imitators, but also altered fundamentally the editing of movies in the genre. This came with a price. Action sequences became harder to follow. Character was relegated. The old style idea of pitting a movie star against some peril in extraordinary circumstances was seemingly less tempting. The Matrix had started something.

Well, that, or everyone just watched Con Air, and figured they couldn’t top it. Because in truth, how could they? One of the most quotable, enjoyable and wildly entertaining blockbusters of the 1990s, I can’t think of anything of its ilk that’s topped it since. And revisiting it? Well, I’ve taken on tougher assignments, let’s put it that way.

“They somehow managed to get every freak and creep in the universe on this one plane, and then somehow managed to let them take it over, and then they somehow managed to stick us right smack in the middle”.

For what strikes you from the off with Con Air is that everyone’s in on the joke. I think it was the original Empire review that compared, for instance, the prison montage at the start to something the Zucker brothers could come up with, and I fully see the point. After all, when the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof machine was at full effectiveness, the trick was to play everything straight. By all means let the circumstances be extraordinary. But never, never let your characters wink at the camera. They have to believe what they’re surrounded by.

Thus, as Nicolas Cage’s hairy Cameron Poe finds himself ‘becoming that man again’ (a rare hint at the character’s darkness), he’s locked up for eight years at the start of Con Air – just as his daughter was about to be born.

But! Rather than press the montage button, writer Scott Rosenberg and director Simon West do something inspired. They pass time by having Casey and Cameron Poe write letters to each other. They say a film has ten minutes to get your attention. By the time ten minutes was up with Con Air, I was practically writing love letters to it.

Truthfully, I could watch the prison sequence on loop for hours, and never not smile at it. Cage’s drawling delivery is utterly magnetic, but you already know that. Heck, there’s even a little narrative weave that goes in. Poe gets a book on Spanish For Beginners, the next moment he’s speaking the language. He gets one on Origami, and soon he’s making an animal out of paper.

This prologue, however, wasn’t in the original script. When director Simon West came aboard the project (for his feature debut), he met with Cage. Cage suggested that Poe should be a decorated army ranger, and West duly added the opening sequence. Cinema is forever grateful for that.

Still, once the prologue ends, it’s time for Poe’s big day. And he’s thus on his way to meet his daughter for the first time. Once he’s packed a toy bunny, of course.

“My daddy’s coming home on July 14th. My birthday is July 14th. I’m going to see my daddy for the first time ever on July 14th”

Were Poe to be released in any planet close to Earth, then he’d just get some basic transport, or be let out of the prison gate. Not here. For reasons of movieland contrivance, he needs to get a flight home. He and his diabetic friend, Baby-O, thus get the next flight back. Turns out? John Cusack’s Vince Larkin has decided to fill it with some of America’s most deadly criminals. All of them, by the looks of it.

This, of course, seemingly makes little sense. Why would you pack a plane full of some of the most dangerous criminals out there? Why would you let Colm Meaney’s azz-kickr DEA scenery-chewery to allow his agent to sneak a gun on there? And then, as if you didn’t have enough convicts to fill a movie, why would you then schedule a stop in Carson City to pick up some more?

But then there’s the more important point: when it’s all this much fun, who the hell cares?

Remarkably though, the transport system is based on fact. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg learned of it, and managed to blag a ride. As he said around the time of the film’s release, “I spent three days on the Con Air plane with the convicts. We flew all over the country. These guys were in a really bad mood. It was just before Christmas, and that didn’t help matters … it was very unsettling, and a bit terrifying. But I knew the story would make a great film”.

He was bang on there.

He also noted that “the breach of security that we depict in this movie could never happen – or so they insist. They laughed when I asked if there was a plausible way the cons in this story might be able to take over the plane. They told me the only way was to let my imagination run wild. So I did”.

“What’s that?” “That’s a rock.”

As such, Con Air knows what it’s doing. At the point you’re introduced to Diamond Dog (“they’re talking to Denzel for the movie”) Billy Bedlam and Goodnight Danny Trejo, you’re left wondering who else they’ve got. Turns out, they’ve got Cyrus The Virus, aka Mr John Malkovich at his screen gobbling best. “You lost your mind?” queries Billy Bedlam of him at one point. “According to my last psych evaluation, yes”, he pitch-perfectly retorts.  

Malkovich reportedly was frustrated during the production of the film though, given the constant rewrites to the screenplay. Apparently, he wasn’t sure how his character was going to turn out in the end. Really rather well, we’d suggest.

It doesn’t take long for mayhem to ensue, anyway. Seemingly within minutes of take off, the plane has been hijacked, as the world knew it would be, and the film splits into two. And unusually, it’s just as much fun in both parts.

Thus, you get the convicts bickering on the plane, with the odd seemingly random death, and hurdles to negotiate. And then you get the wonderful, simmering hate between Vince Larkin and Duncan Malloy on the ground. Cusack’s Larkin is a hero of sorts here, and plainly, he’s the one who everyone should listen to, but they don’t. Instead, they listen to Malloy. Colm Meaney plays Malloy as if he turned up for a few days to have the time of his life, and does. “This is a situation that needs to get unfucked, right now!”, he barks at one stage. He delivers it as if he knows that he’s in the Shakespeare of action cinema. And then he flies a helicopter to attack somebody having flying lessons. It’s all gold.

A spin-off movie as Larkin and Malloy go and fight crime together was one of cinema’s all-time missed opportunities.

“It’s your barbecue Cyrus, and it tastes good”

Back to the plot, then. Larkin realises his plane is in trouble, whilst Cyrus plans the expected pick-up at Carson City. And it’s worth the trouble too, because here’s where Steve Buscemi turns up. He’s Garland Greene, aka the Marietta Mangler. “What’s wrong with him?”, asks Baby-O as he’s brought onto the plane, Hannibal Lecter-style. “My first thought would be… a lot”, muses Poe. Not for the first time, he’s right.

Just as he would do in Armageddon a few years’ later though, Buscemi – in a movie where scenes are stolen every other minute – owns his bit of Con Air. Pick any piece of his dialogue, and Buscemi knocks it out of the proverbial park. “What if I told you insane was working 50 hours a week in some office for 50 years at the end of which they tell you to piss off, ending up in some retirement village hoping to die before suffering the indignity of trying to make it to the toilet on time? Wouldn’t you consider that to be insane?”, he not unreasonably points out.

There’s a sinister undertone, of course, to the sequence where he goes and plays with the young girl. Yet it leads to a truly magical movie moment. As the plane begins what’ll be its crash landing on the Las Vegas strip, Buscemi sings. More specifically, he sings ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’. At one point in the film, Cameron Poe muses that “on any other day, that might seem strange”. It sure applies here too. Only Academy snobbery robbed Buscemi of an Oscar, for our money. Bloody toffs.

Helpfully, someone has edited all Buscemi’s moments together in one YouTube clip. We’ll see you underneath this video in 6 minutes and 56 seconds.

Now bear with me a sec. One of the huge successes of James Cameron’s Aliens, I always thought, was that you got to the end of the movie, and you could name – without thinking – at least half a dozen of the characters straight off. Think how rarely that happens. Now come back to Con Air. It’s in a very elite club where blockbuster cinema is concerned, but there’s little doubt – even appreciating the plethora of magical performances – that this is Cameron Poe’s story. This is a man whose first meeting with his daughter will not be missed for the sake of a 40+ bodycount and the wrecking of a Las Vegas building.

“Ya know what my daddy taught me?” “What’s that?” “Nothing.”

Nicolas Cage boarded Con Air at a point where he was migrating his career from a more serious and/or comedic actor, to an action hero. He followed Con Air up with John Woo’s Face/Off, and he came to it off the back of Michael Bay’s The Rock. It’d be fair to say that it’s an action movie one-two-three, that few actors have ever managed to rival. Ever.

Furthermore, in three films straight – notwithstanding the muddled Gone In Sixty Seconds – he redefined himself as one of the 90s’ most prominent action stars, off the back of winning his Best Actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas.

None of his action roles – not even his weird priest moment in Face/Off – holds a torch to Poe, though. The Rock had actually just wrapped filming when he committed to Con Air, and Cage went to Alabama to work on his accent for the character. It would be fair to say that he nailed it. Simple lines that could be thrown away in other action movies – “aw, shucks” – became almost gold-plated thanks to Cage’s delivery.

And then there’s the immortal moment. The Oscar clip. You know which one…

We’re thinking it too. They gave him the Academy Award for the wrong film. On paper, it must have looked insane. When it was filmed, it must have seemed insane. But we’re back to making sure the characters play it straight. Poe does, and it’s the moment that even non-Con Air devotees tend to name off the top of their head. It may just be the peak of the film.

“What’s wrong with him?” “My first thought would be… a lot”

In the interests of trying to at least give the impression of being rounded on a film I utterly love, there are one or two problems that I should touch on. Monica Potter, for one, gets a thankless role here. In a very male-driven movie (the overwhelming majority of the cast are men, although one of them does wear a dress at one point), her character has to basically sit and wait for her husband to come home, whilst looking exactly the same at the start of the movie as she did at the end. Potter, thankfully, has gone on to greater work.

Furthermore, the big crash landing in Las Vegas. In a film hardly light on excess, it’s easy to see why they went for this (extra money was freed up to pay for it, and the filmmakers got to pretty much destroy the Sands Hotel for real, which was due for demolition). It perhaps drags on just a little, thanks to the extended finale with Cyrus and a fire engine. But thankfully, it’s not long until Cameron Poe is picking his bunny out of the gutter, and dusting it down for his baby girl. Who initially regards it with a look that suggests it’s promptly appeared from a dog’s bottom. That, or she’s looking at her father, wondering if it’s the same vest that Bruce Willis wore in Die Hard. One or the other.

Also, I should note that not everyone loves Con Air. It got quite middling reviews on its initial release, although as Simon West has since confessed, it’s the film that everyone asks him about now. That said, John Cusack at one stage was hardly giving off a sense of euphoria about the movie, declaring that he took the role to “get my name about the title, my face on a billboard”. IMDB also notes that he apparently hates the film, and hates being asked about it in interviews, although that does fly somewhat in the face of him telling the BBC in March 2012 that he’d be interested in a Con Air sequel.

One person who definitely wasn’t keen on the idea of the film though was the late producer Don Simpson. Simpson died in January 1996, 18 months before Con Air‘s release. But he hated the idea of the movie. Following his death, it was the first movie that his long-time producing partner, Jerry Bruckheimer, made under his own banner. Bruckheimer knew what he had, though. In fact, long before it was the norm, he had a teaser trailer playing in cinemas, a year ahead of release. Bruckheimer knew.

But then he got the basics right. He was also ahead of the game in building an ensemble for an action movie around quality actors, not usually known for the genre. That said, he’s never quite found the same formula in action cinema since. Pirates Of The Caribbean, his biggest subsequent success, played to a family audience, and played well. Yet a grown up action movie, wearing its R rating on its sleeve? Armageddon has lots of moments, certainly, but we try not to talk about projects such as Bad Company and Bad Boys II if we can help it.

Rumours continue to persist that Con Air may get a sequel one day, and certainly many of those involved show interest. Simon West has admitted he planned to talk to Nicolas Cage about it, although we don’t know if that conversation ever took place. John Cusack hasn’t shut the door to it, whilst Steve Buscemi – whose character survived – admitted too that it’d be fun to return.

“Oh, stewardess? Stewardess? What’s the in-flight movie today?”

But it’d be fun too to have another film such as Con Air that diligently mixes action, comedy and standout moments, in what feels like such an old-fashioned way. The action sequences hit, the comedy really soars, and the bunny rightly makes its way to its intended recipient. It is, I contend, one of the very, very best mainstream action movies that the 90s ever gave us, a genuine five star night out at the movies. Could Con Air 2 match it? Probably not, because nothing’s managed quite the same feat since anyway. But the second it’s announced, I’ll know I’ll be first at the door on opening day…

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