Con Air (1997)
A good action movie plot is like a good car: once it gets you where you need to go, you don't have to worry about it anymore. Utilitarian simplicity works best, not something with a lot of bells and whistles and complicated parts that take attention and effort to figure out. Fuel, fire, zoom.
*Con Air* has a simple, utilitarian plot with lots of fuel, fire and zoom. Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage, with a Southern drawl and sounding exactly like Hi, his dopey character in *Raising Arizona*) is a highly decorated Army Ranger who goes to prison for killing a man in a bar brawl, leaving behind a pregnant wife. When he's paroled seven years later, he ends up on an airplane transporting several of the world's worst prisoners: serial killers, serial rapists, serial lunatics, and other remorseless recidivists, the kind of hardened criminals that make Republicans open the coffers wide. When the prisoners hijack the plane, only Poe stands between civilization and two dozen bloodthirsty villains, but being a selflessly heroic sort, and, thanks to his military training, a human deadly weapon to boot, Poe is up to the task even though it might mean never seeing his wife, or the daughter he's never met. On the ground, US Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) suspects Poe is a good guy, and battles with bloodthirsty bureaucrats who want to shoot down the plane.
The simplicity of *Con Air* -- bad guys try to get from point A to point B, good guy tries to stop them -- leaves lots of room for big bangs, and this movie has them in spades: huge, fiery, technicolor explosions, all manner of vehicular mayhem, brutal fist-fights, blazing shoot-outs, in short, an exhaustive barrage of violence, stunts and special effects that result in a seemingly endless string of climaxes. *Con Air* isn't a movie that never ends, it's a movie that does virtually nothing else.
The thing is, when you've seen one explosion, you've pretty much seen 'em all, and the same goes for car chases, plane crashes, gun fights, and so on. First-time director Simon West is an anti-auteur, leaving virtually no stylistic imprint whatsoever on this film, save for some fairly cornball slo-mo effects, so he doesn't add anything artistic or innovative to the action, although *Con Air* is abundantly energetic and fast-paced. West is a director who, like the plot, doesn't get in the way, which is far preferable to an in-the-way director whose style is incoherently flashy and meaningless.
*Con Air* is as entertaining as it is because of a witty script by Scott Rosenberg. The best moments of this movie happen when *Con Air* occasionally slows down to refuel before resuming the mayhem anew. The abundant villains are not a complex, shades-of-grey lot, but neither are they standard-issue movie psychos. Each man possesses his own colorful moniker: there's ring leader Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich), an indiscriminate mass murderer and phrenologist's dream with a bald pate, "Diamond Dog" Jones (Ving Rhames), a black militant who blew up an NRA convention, and everybody's favorite psycho, Garland "The Marietta Mangler" Greene (Steve Buscemi), a mild-mannered cannibal and a loquacious travelling companion who arrives a la Hannibal Lecter ("I love your work" Cyrus tells him). Poe's only pals are his former cellmate Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson), a near-comatose insulin-dependent diabetic, and Bishop (Rachel Ticotin), a prison guard who spends most of the film manacled and menaced by serial rapist "Johnny 23" (Danny Trejo). With the exception of "Sally Can't Dance" (Renoly), an unfortunate drag queen stereotype, the cons of *Con Air* are an ugly but witty bunch, armed with pithy one-liners *and* rocket launchers -- these fun-loving fellas really love their work . There are at least as many laughs in *Con Air* as there are explosions, and that's quite a few.
*Con Air* is armed with a self-mocking tone, an awareness, verging on self-parody, of how silly all this testosterone-fueled noise and naughtiness actually is. This is most evident in the performances of Cage and Malkovich, who all but wink when they deliver lines that are knowingly absurd and extreme variations of archetypal villain-hero dialogue. *Con Air* seems to lose this smart self-awareness, however, when the movie reaches its real conclusion, and goes out in what should be a blaze of glory. After so many premature climaxes, the final act is really an anti-climactic lunge for the finish line, a stunt-filled, cliche-riddled, emotionally corny last gasp, an all-out effort to top the movie off with bigger, faster, wilder action that only betrays the rest of the film.
*Con Air* gets off the ground and flies high because it's smart and funny. When this movie crash lands, it is because it dumbs down and flies too low.