Tuesday 28 March 2023

Con Air (1997)

Director: Simon West
Writer: Scott Rosenberg
Stars: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Colm meaney, Mykelti Williamson and Rachel Ticotin

Index: The First Thirty.

What I like the most about Con Air, a picture I should have seen many years ago but never got round to until now, is that Cage still isn’t the action hero in the way we expect. It seems like every time he gets the opportunity to be a straight forward action hero, he resists.

In The Rock he was a kinda sorta action hero but he was also the nerdy dude playing second fiddle to tough guy Sean Connery. Here, he’s a bona fide action hero at the very outset, but it doesn’t last and he takes an utterly differently approach for the bulk of the film.

He’s Cameron Poe and, to keep a trend alive from The Rock, his wife is pregnant. He’s a U.S. Army Ranger, who looks great in uniform for his honourable discharge and return home to Tricia in Mobile, Alabama. And he doesn’t get into the bar fight some idiot wants him to get into, which makes her happy because she was hoping the army would take that guy out of him. Apparently it did.

Except this idiot and his two drunk buddies decide to jump him in the parking lot, with a knife. He responds, totally in self defence, but he leaves one of them dead on the ground. The others skip with the knife, the judge calls his hands deadly weapons and suddenly he’s in a cell serving seven to ten years. He watches his daughter grow up in photos, he learns Spanish and he exercises a heck of a lot.

Eight years later, he’s paroled and climbs on board the Jailbird, a prison plane, to take him home. So far, so darkly realistic. Now we turn the Hollywood logic up to eleven.

Also on the Jailbird are his diabetic cellmate Mike O’Dell, known as Baby-O, and a collection of the worst of the worst, each one of them an impeccably nicknamed villain who’s played by a very recognisable character actor. Because that’s how things work in action cinema!

The face at the top of the poster belongs to John Malkovich, because he plays Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, a jack of all trades criminal. The gentleman of colour facing down a plane with his twin guns is Ving Rhames, as Nathan “Diamond Dog” Jones, a black power terrorist. There’s serial rapist John Baca, or Johnny 23, a count of his victims, in the memorable form of Danny Trejo. There’s Dave Chappelle as a low level drug dealer, Joe “Pinball” Parker. Yes, I mean the comedian.

A little less recognisable are Nick Chinlund as William “Billy Bedlam” Bedford, who killed his ex-wife’s entire family; M. C. Gainey as Earl “Swamp Thing” Williams; and Renoly Santiago as a transgender prisoner called Ramon “Sally Can’t Dance” Martinez.

Oh, and best of all, even if Malkovich is very much in charge of the show, there’s a legend of a serial killer, Garland Greene, the Marietta Mangler, who’s played, with clear nods to Sir Anthony Hopkins’s version of Hannibal Lector, by Steve Buscemi. He’s absolutely priceless in one of his best supporting performances and he steals every single scene he’s in.

Anyway, with so much talent on the plane, it shouldn’t surprise that Malkovich has quite the escape plan to orchestrate, starting with a takeover of the plane in mid-flight. There’s an undercover DEA agent on board and a marshal too, in addition to various guards, but they’re all rumbled quickly enough. And that leaves a single man to save the day: Cameron Poe, who starts out stopping Johnny 23 from raping the one female guard and builds from there.

Except the movie that’s playing out in your head right now is not this one. That’s Die Hard. One good guy with serious training happens to be in an isolated location with a whole bunch of bad guys ready to do bad things, so he goes about saving the day, right? Wrong.

Poe is a good guy, even with eight years of incarceration behind him, but he’s really not interested in stopping the plane. He only has three tasks on his mind. Keep Sally Bishop safe from Johnny 23. Get some insulin for Baby-O. Go home to Tricia and see seven year old Casey for the first time. And so, for the longest time, this action thriller happens around him.

In that story, the hero is U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin, who isn’t on the plane. He’s in charge of monitoring the flight from the ground even if John Cusack seems a little young to play that character. He does it well and better as things progress, taking on a little action himself.

The bad guys are Malkovich and his crew of wildly dangerous freed prisoners, who notably don’t include the Marietta Mangler, who has a story of his own to explore, now that he’s free. Oh, and there’s a very different bad guy, Agent Duncan Malloy, whom Colm Meaney plays as a fantastic bloodthirsty asshole. Larkin does his job and tries to solve the problem at hand, but Malloy just wants to blow it out of the sky. He almost does too, which makes what happens to his fancy car—licence plate AZZ KIKR—such glorious karma.

Once again, I find myself liking Cage here. It isn’t a given, because I tend to appreciate the supporting character actors in stories like this, even if they’re the bad guys, and I can’t leave Buscemi’s character alone. However, Cage has a fantastic story arc here, starting as a typical action hero but being quickly brought low and then, when the opportunity to turn into John McClane arises, he steadfastly resists until it’s too late to do anything else. Eventually, he has a memorable stunt sequence on the ladder of a fire engine, because that story arc doesn’t just give him a redux of his reunion with Tricia, it brings him back to the all-American hero that he started out as in Desert Storm.

I still don’t know quite where he plucked his Leaving Las Vegas performance from, because there are only hints in his First Thirty of that level of acting ability, even in his best movies, but, after that picture, it doesn’t surprise at all when he brings nuance to a role that wouldn’t feature any nuance in the hands of most A-list action stars.

Add some nice explosions and a whole slew of hilarious lines, most of them regarding the plush bunny that Poe’s taking to his daughter for her birthday, and this is an enjoyable ride.

It’s certainly not the best film ever made or the best action film or even the best action film that Nicolas Cage made in 1997, but it’s a solid couple of hours of entertainment, a good follow-up to The Rock with a serious step up on the cards next, in Face/Off.

No comments: