I would have loved to be there at the pitch meeting for “Con Air.” Take “Die Hard,” make the villain John Malkovich and make its two heroes once popular eighties stars, and you have yourself what is a tonally uneven but pretty solid action movie all around. Star Nicolas Cage does double duty camp as hero Cameron Poe, an army ranger who accidentally murders a man while attempting to defend his wife one night at a bar. For some reason this qualifies him to travel on a transport flight to a new prison alongside some of the worst criminals in the world (?). This includes rapists, cannibals, child molesters, and vicious serial killer Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, as played by John Malkovich.
Staging a violent coup, the prisoners manage to work together to overthrow the guards, and hijack the transport plane which they want to take across the border to “non-extradition territory.” But Cameron is desperate to get home and back to his wife, and is by no means a vicious criminal. So he has to figure out how to work with US Marshall Vince Larkin, as played by John Cusack, and foil Cyrus’s plan so he can get home without being considered an accomplice. With his long hair, goofy Southern accent, and kung fu skills, Cameron has to obtain his image as a criminal, while also trying to stall for Larkin, who is racing to stop their operation before they leave US airspace. Cusack is also very good as the second fiddle action hero who is given a few banner moments including a great car chase.
Simon West’s film is an oddity of the action genre, in that it’s a pretty ultraviolent twist in “Die Hard” right down to Malkovich playing a brutally menacing and memorable super villain. Director West is also never above delivering a ton of dark comedy, and one liners. There’s the classic “Make a move and the bunny gets it,” as well as one of my favorites where the prisoners begin celebrating their takeover dancing to “Sweet Home Alabama” prompting Steve Buscemi’s character to proclaim: “Define irony. Bunch of idiots dancing on a plane to a song made famous by a band that died in a plane crash.” It is Jerry Bruckheimer after all, so the fact that the movie dodges logic whenever it can is par for the course. For one: “Con Air” while being a fun action thriller, also tends to suffer from never being able to decide if it’s a hyper violent action film, or a silly action comedy.
Second the whole sub-plot involving the conveniently placed small girl living in a trailer park borders on moronic, while it’s never entirely made clear why when the plane lands to pick up more prisoners, there aren’t more police at the landing to oversee the prisoners. My favorite of the Bruckheimer outputs of the 90’s is still “The Rock,” by far, but “Con Air” still manages to kill it as pure popcorn action madnes. The entire cast of folks like Ving Rhames, and Danny Trejo play to their strengths, including Cage who has a good time as a trashier White Trash Chuck Norris.