Con Air (1997)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Broken Arrow

Picasso Trigger

Silent Assassins

Con Air

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Our rating: two LAVA® motion lamps.

I object!
If Cameron Poe, Nick Cage's character in Con Air, had had a better lawyer at his trial, then it would have saved us all a lot of grief. Somehow, his attorney (A rare appearance by Lionel Hutz outside of The Simpsons, perhaps?) convinces him to plea guilty to a manslaughter charge as part of a plea bargain, and then the judge turns around and gives him the full sentence anyway. A real lawyer might have objected, raised his hand, coughed loudly, something, but not Poe's. Poe's lawyer waves bye-bye as they haul his client off to jail.

You see, Cameron Poe, veteran Army Ranger, killed a man who assaulted him outside a bar. Again, a real lawyer might have tried to claim it was in self-defense, or even in the defense of his wife and unborn child. Instead, this Hollywood lawyer lets Poe go to prison when the judge mutters some nonsense about his Ranger training qualifying him as a deadly weapon. If we had a good lawyer, we might think about suing Touchstone pictures for false advertising -- they claimed this was a good movie.

Con Air is one of the latest in the long string of action "event" movies that have visited us each summer since 1988's Die Hard. Unfortunately, few of them have managed to capture Die Hard's magic, although the body counts and testosterone levels have only gone up. Con Air isn't one of the better efforts.

Poe is paroled about seven years after his conviction, and he's scheduled to go home to his wife and daughter aboard a prison transport plane. Because Poe is in an action event film, however, his plane is hijacked by the other prisoners. These aren't just any prisoners, though. They're the meanest, orneriest, most psychopathic killers and rapists that the screenwriter and casting agents could cook up. Frankly, they're a bit disappointing.

First up is Cyrus "the Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich), the mastermind behind the escape. His second-in-command is Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames), a black militant playing along with the white guy until the breakout is over. Steve Buscemi shows up later in Hannibal-Lecter-style restraints as Garland Greene, serial killer extraordinaire. There are also a dozen other inmates too inane to describe.

Meaney and Cusack face off.
Poe plays along, hoping for an opportunity to extract himself from the situation, but he's prevented from doing so by certain contrived circumstances. Circumstance #1: his diabetic cell buddy, Baby-O, is also on board, and needs a shot of insulin to live. Circumstance #2: The only guard to survive the first round of hijack hyjinx is a woman named Bishop who quickly becomes a target for the token serial rapist. The rapist, Johnny 23, is played by Danny Trejo, who should stick to acting in Robert Rodriguez movies. Even when he played a vampire in From Dusk Til Dawn, he was allowed to let his charisma (or as much charisma as a mean scary Mexican ex-convict can muster, no offense Danny) shine through. Here he's just repulsive.

Tracking down these escapees from the ground is U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack). He's the good cop. Forcibly partnered with Larkin is DEA Agent Duncan Malloy. He's the bad cop, and he's played by Colm Meaney.

Huh? Colm Meaney? Likable, huggy-bear, "Chief O'Brien" Colm Meaney? Considering that the casting agents on this film seemed to have every found every unsavory character actor west of the Mississippi, what possesed them to cast one of the most instantly likable character actors working today as the cop at whom we're supposed to hiss? His sole qualification for the role seems to be his ability to swear convincingly. Fair enough. But as soon as he showed up in Con Air, his appearance heralded by smarmy music, we started to have trouble suspending our disbelief. We mean, c'mon! Colm Meaney would never be any less than a concerned, good-hearted guy, and these people have him parking in the handicapped spot.

Con Air comes to a grinding halt.
The object of the film, of course, is to allow Cage to get in some serious good-guy time, pretending to go along with the bad guys while looking out for his buddies and saving the day. He manages to alert Larkin to the escapees' actual destination, and then continues to foil the convicts' plans even after they discover that he's working with the cops. Cage himself set off our Fake Accent Detector with a southern drawl so bad that one wonders how he could have been so good in Raising Arizona and so bad in this movie.

The action junkies in our readership have been patiently waiting for us to mention the stunts and fight scenes. There are plenty of them, but they seem a bit watered-down, as a lot of American action movies seem in these days of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino. It's neither gonzo enough (Woo) nor is it particularly shocking (Tarantino). The gunfights have a routine feel to them, and the various plane-crash sequences didn't get our adrenaline pumping. There are a few good visual gags that result from the carnage, but you've seen all this action before and done better elsewhere. Perhaps the strangest thing is that the final conflict takes place on a speeding fire truck after the titular plane has crashed. After a plane crashes on the Vegas strip, did the film makers really think we'd be excited to see what amounts to a car chase? Hint to future action moviemakers: End your movie on a high note.

All through the film, we're hammered again and again with what a great guy Cameron Poe is. He's loyal, chivalrous, a good parent (!), etc etc. All of this is supposed to contrast against the backdrop of the scum of society all around him. It's obvious that the moviemakers have a message for the audience, but the clearest message to us was that we should have rented a different movie.

Own it!

Review date: 01/21/1998

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