Con Air (1997)

Simon West directs Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich and John Cusack in this ensemble action comedy where a plane full of the very worst offenders in the American penal system is hijacked by the cargo.

An airplane overcrowded with psychos. A script full of zingers. A movie packed with national emergency explosions. A score brimming with triumphant crescendos. A casting agent’s wettest dream collection of slumming it prestige actors and crime cinema background royalty. The maddest action movie premise since Dennis Hopper put a bomb on a bus, executed with the restraint of an asylum taken over by the insane… with access to Jerry Bruckheimer’s credit card.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer had nothing left to prove. He had made serious bank in the Eighties with his flashy work partnered with Don Simpson. Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun. These were the biggest money makers of their respective years. By the 1990s Simpson was succumbing to ego and coke and COKE and EGO. When he died in 1995 his legacy was some of the biggest hits of the last decade and a deal with Paramount to make 5 productions with no creative restrictions for a combined budget of $500 million dollars. That was essentially a blank cheque in end of the millennium Hollywood. Not even Spielberg or Cameron ever had a deal like that. And they blew it with the middlingly successful Cruise / Nascar vehicle Days of Thunder. A movie I like more than Top Gun but damagingly being their only release in 4 years and not long before the partnership was dissolved by overdose. I get the feeling the spiralling Simpson with his unfettered spending and unpredictable demands would have dragged the dream team under if he lived past Bad Boys and Dangerous Minds. His untimely death righted the ship, Bruckheimer was back on course making crowd pleasing and profitable slickness.

Not that Jerry was put off by excess of a different kind. Days of Thunder might not have met expectations. Might not have given Paramount their money’s worth but Bruckheimer made a new deal with Disney and started making ensemble blockbusters. Days of Thunder had a cast so packed tight with talent that bonafide movie stars in their own right Cary Elwes and Randy Quaid were fifth and sixth billed. If you could overfill a glossy action flick with thespian talent, rising stars and big names looking for a comeback you could make a more exciting playbill for less cost than a peak asking price Tom Cruise or Eddie Murphy would set you back. You see this economic logic at play in The Rock, Armageddon, Pirates of the Caribbean etc. And Warner Bros has since picked up the ball with this non-megastar led deal with their Dark Knight trilogy, Harry Potter and Ocean’s films. The right combination of B and C listers is more enticing to the public than just 1 big name bet.

Con Air though is the zenith of this ensemble package theory though. Three years after Pulp Fiction had suddenly made household names of a load of cult, quirky indie actors talky, unpredictable crime cinema had become decent business. If you had a script with an attractive amount of distinctive back-and-forth plus the occasional hip monologue then you were in the game. Tarantino was the King, but there were a million script writing pretenders to the throne who had their gangsters swear every other word while obtusely recommending their favourite Seventies sitcom. Cast a cool face like Ving Rhames, Danny Trejo or Steve Buscemi and you had a film with an inbuilt home video audience. HOLY SHIT! Con Air has all three lurking around the backseats. Bung in energetic performers like Dave Chapelle, Rachel Ticotin and Colm Meany and you already have a film worth watching. The genius was to take the violence and squaring up away from nightclub backrooms, warehouses and safe houses and put it in a mega budget “Die Hard in a fever dream” rollercoaster. Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead & Beautiful Girls screenwriter Scott Rosenberg deserves an Oscar for his work here. The script doctors who took later cracks can all have a Bafta and Golden Globe each. Every line of dialogue is cool as fuck, or silly as soap. Often both:

“Put… the bunny… back… in the box.”

“I think you’ll like it, Cyrus. It’s called “I’ll Never Make Love to a Woman on the Beach Again”, and it’s preceded by the award-winning short, “No More Steak for Me, Ever”.”

“Name your cliché; mother held him too much or not enough, last picked at kickball, late night sneaky uncle, whatever. Now he’s so angry moments of levity actually cause him pain”

“”Thesaurus Boy” I think is more appropriate.”

“DON’T. TREAT. WOMEN. LIKE. THAT!”

“Nothing makes me sadder than the agent lost his bladder on the aiiiirrrrplane!”

“I’m going to show you God does exist.”

Now just imagine those in context…

And the context is excessive mayhem. Con Air hurtles. Plumes of hellfire billow. Steel is torn through like wrapping paper. Bullets fly like confetti. Inbetween the prison banter and lunatic posturing there is hurly burly a plenty. Want to see a custom built sports car keel hauled through the skies? Done! Nicolas Cage mullet punch his way through an entire seating section of hardened cons? Here! Las Vegas tore up like cardboard by a plane acting like a box cutter? Yours! Con Air is so excessive that even once it’s all over you still get a bonus motorbike versus fire engine chase through what is left standing of Sin City. OTT is its prime directive.

The salty dialogue, the dream cast of dirty faces and the epic pyrotechnics would all be nothing if it wasn’t for the three top billed stars. All at the peak of their popularity. Cusack is doing one for them, hates to talk about the film where he first sold out even now. Yet his nerdy sandal wearing Vince Larkin still makes it into any fan of his’ Top Five. Malkovich was clearly growing bored of mainstream villainy by this point so makes Cyrus the Virus so charismatically vile he needs to be killed three times at the end of play. This might be a hard earned paycheck for them but one man is treating it like the blast it should be.

And Nic Cage coming fresh off an Oscar win and new action hero direction with The Rock is THAT MAN! He plays his saintly hero so unrestrainedly good hearted that you forget he barehanded kills more shitkickers here in a day than any of the nutballs he hitches a ride with. At the end of two fist-pumping hours you just wanna see your good guys be the best guys – Bruckheimer and Cage know this. Cameron Poe is a hillbilly knight valiant. Ready to outrun a fireball, weave and muscles pumping. Spending his prison time self improving in a montage sillier than anything in Airplane! And bringing the mushiest mawk to scenes where he reunites with his gorgeous family. When Cage is on screen putting in full effort there ain’t a dry eye in the house, or fresh ham cooking in the oven. All the pulled pork and crackling has been used up! Ridiculously rewatchable stuff. “Why couldn’t you put the bunny in the box?”

9

Check out my wife Natalie’s Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/

One comment

  1. PatrickWhy · April 14

    Lol great stuff. I hadn’t considered that angle–where movies started packing in as many “that guys” as possible into an ensemble. It was actually a great strategy. Like assembling an all star basketball team comprised of all sixth men. This, Face/Off, The Rock–Cage doing goofy action blockbusters that were self-conscious and fun. Not sure where it started to go downhill–Windtalkers, maybe?

    Like

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