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Con Air (1997)


It wasn’t necessarily obvious (or even possible to know) at the time of its 1997 release, but Jerry Bruckheimer’s Con Air would represent his finest hour. Bruckheimer isn’t the director, of course, but rather the rare movie producer who would claim possessive credit on almost any of his projects. Bruckheimer branches into cheesy thrillers, cheesy inspirational dramas, cheesy inspirational sports dramas, and cheesy television procedurals, but Con Air finds the super-producer munching on his bread and butter: a loaf of action movie, with melted cheese on top.

Not only that, but it’s assembled using all of Bruckheimer’s tried and tested techniques: Mix movie stars and indie heroes into an eclectic, slumming cast and have them act in a ludicrously high-concept scenario. (Here it is: The worst criminals in the country team up to hijack their prison transport plane! And it’s up to one man to stop them!) Then spend lots of money but indulge in a cynical jokiness, and hire a director who will shoot the whole thing like it’s a music video or a commercial (preferably for itself).

In the case of Con Air, the director is Simon West. He’s not as successful, stylish, or instantly recognizable as Michael Bay, and that may be why the film works so well; it turns out that no Michael Bay knockoff can screw it up quite like the real thing. If Bay and West are just two of many workers on the Bruckheimer assembly line, Bay is the showiest and West is the most efficient, and guess whose product works better?

So, yes, West’s direction is full of gratuitous slow-mo and fast cuts, but just enough to goose Con Air‘s ridiculous premise and talented cast – not enough to work the movie into frenzied, atonal overdrive.

Even so, some might carp that a movie like this wastes nigh a dozen good actors on an expensive game of cops ‘n’ (mostly) crooks. But plenty of award-winning films have employed equally great ensembles to lesser effect than Con Air. First and foremost is Nicolas Cage as (of course) the wrongfully imprisoned hero just trying to get home to his wife and kid. Cage takes this ’80s-style role someplace not so far removed from a Coen Brothers movie, a land of stone-faced cornpone camp. When a fellow prisoner menaces a stuffed toy intended for his daughter, and Cage warns him to ‘put the bunny back in the box,’ you believe he’ll do something about it – not because the script demands it, but because Cage so convincingly flirts with nuttiness. It takes a planeload of miscreants to make him look like the all-American hero.

Bruckheimer deploys the rest of the cast with strategic obviousness: John Malkovich is the intelligently psychotic ringleader; John Cusack is the smart, fast-talking U.S. Marshal; Dave Chapelle is a wiseass; Steve Buscemi is a serial killer. Only Ving Rhames gets a slight short shrift; they should’ve thrown him a monologue or something.

The patented Bruckheimer casting works especially well because of Con Air‘s frankly antisocial sense of humor. Despite the heroics of Cage and Cusack, this variety pack of action-picture villains eventually comes across as weirdly lovable (Malkovich has to make some grimy threats to the safety of Cage’s family toward the end, presumably to remind us that, oh yeah, these guys are dangerous). Buscemi’s quiet celebrity murderer gets the most perversely respectful treatment, even including his extraneous scenes with a little girl that gleefully balance on an intersection of suspense, humor, and tastelessness.

The whole movie is like that, balancing spectacle and self-parody, unreasonably entertaining and surprisingly difficult to replicate. A more ambitious director might have toppled the whole thing; witness the consistency with which Bay’s directorial preening renders his films useless. But with West’s confidence competence, and Bruckheimer’s reliable slickness, Con Air gets out of its own way and becomes a trash classic.

The new unrated, extended DVD is both, uh, unrated and extended.