Flying the Fiendly Skies
“Con Air” is a big, loud, noisy movie made with almost scientific precision for people who like big, loud, noisy movies. Numbing but not boring, it’s finally more dispiriting than exhilarating, like a wild night of debauchery that leaves only a fearsome hangover for a souvenir.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, having made “Top Gun,” “Bad Boys,” “The Rock” and similar fare with his late partner Don Simpson, knows the drill for this kind of picture. Pump up the volume, add on the crashes, blasts and explosions, increase the body count and sit back and count the money.
New to Jerry’s world are Simon West, a British commercial director making his feature debut, and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, best known for “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead.” Their contributions, combined with a capable group of actors, improve on business as usual, but the change isn’t enough to make this trip necessary for the uninitiated.
The story of how “every creep and freak in the known universe” combine to take over a U.S. Marshals Service prison airplane, “Con Air” starts with a glimpse of its hero, human killing machine Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), at a high point in his life.
A newly minted Army Ranger, Poe has barely had time to receive a welcome home kiss from his pregnant wife in Mobile, Ala., before he gets involved in a barroom altercation and ends up drawing a seven- to 10-year sentence for justifiable homicide.
Passing the hours studying origami and staying fit, Poe also finds time to write mushy letters to his wife and the daughter he’s never met, notes that Cage reads in an Alabama accent so thick it makes George Wallace sound like David Niven. It’s the signature of a borderline parody performance that warns “Anaconda’s” Jon Voight he’d best look to his laurels.
Paroled after eight years, Poe is just an airplane ride away from his family. But the plane he calls “my sweet bird of freedom” is in reality an airborne snake pit, taking a group of criminal monsters to a new superprison designed to “warehouse the worst of the worst.”
Demented leader of this particular pack is Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, “poster child for the criminally insane,” neatly played by a gleeful John Malkovich. Among his henchpersons are Nathan “Diamond Dog” Jones (Ving Rhames), a murderous black separatist; the aptly named Billy Bedlam (Nick Chinlund); and serial rapist John “Johnny 23" Baca (Danny Trejo).
Much to the chagrin of the good guys on the ground, ranging from the shrewd Vince Larkin (John Cusack) to Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney), hot-headed enough to have “AZZ KIKR” on his license plate, these menaces to society commandeer the plane and make a try for freedom.
Plot contrivances being what they are, Cameron Poe has a chance to walk away from this messy cargo. But, as chivalrous as his accent, he stays on board to protect best friend Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson) and a female guard (Rachel Ticotin) Johnny 23 has in his sights. “I can’t trade a friend’s life for my own,” he says, a grand sentiment for sure.
Director West is adept at keeping things moving and writer Rosenberg does provide some good lines, like Cyrus’ sincere “love your work” aside to Hannibal Lectorish mass murderer Garland Greene (Steve Buscemi).
But with a noise level so high the dialogue has to be screamed and more silly moments than sane ones, “Con Air” is an animated comic book put together to pound an audience into submission, not entertain it. It gets the job done, but a pretty picture it is not.
* MPAA rating: R for strong violence and language. Times guidelines: murder, mayhem and attempted rape.
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Nicolas Cage: Cameron Poe
John Cusack: Vince Larkin
John Malkovich: Cyrus Grissom
Steve Buscemi: Garland Greene
Ving Rhames: Nathan Jones
Colm Meaney: Duncan Malloy
A Jerry Bruckheimer production, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Simon West. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Executive producers Chad Oman, Jonathan Hensleigh, Peter Bogart, Jim Kouf, Lynn Bigelow. Screenplay by Scott Rosenberg. Cinematographer David Tattersall. Editors Chris Lebenzon, Steve Mirkovich, Glen Scantlebury. Costumes Bobbie Read. Music Mark Mancina, Trevor Rabin. Production design Deborah Evans. Art director Edward T. McAvoy. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
* In general release.