Con Air (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Con Air, producer Jerry Bruckheimer's generic follow-up to 1996's blockbuster, The Rock, is the kind of motion picture that critics refer to when they moan about the "dumbing down" of American cinema. This movie is a perfect example of what's wrong with many big-budget films today: no characters, no intelligence, and, worst of all, little fun. Although director Simon West intends for Con Air to be a comic book come to life, it lacks the visual flair and imagination of all but the most trite comics. The film relies on impressive pyrotechnic displays, but it has been a long time since a well-executed explosion enraptured an audience. Con Air is noisy and flashy, but that can be said about any of the numerous, same-genre pictures that reach screens every year. What the movie lacks are tension and excitement to go along with all the bangs. The action sequences are presented in a pedestrian fashion, and there are too few instances when we feel that the protagonist is in any real danger.

Our hero is Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), an ex-Army Ranger and Desert Storm veteran who has spent the last eight years in prison serving a sentence for manslaughter (he accidentally killed a man who was threatening his pregnant wife). Now, he has been paroled, and he's on his way home to be reunited with his wife and meet his daughter for the first time. One problem: the flight he's on is carrying a load of vicious criminals bound for detention at a new prison in Alabama. They get loose and take over the plane, and suddenly Cameron finds himself taking orders from Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich), the self-proclaimed "poster child for the criminally insane." Meanwhile, on the ground, a U.S. Marshal named Vince Larkin (John Cusack) is trying to bring the situation to a peaceful conclusion, despite interference from a Federal agent (Colm Meaney), who wants to shoot down the plane.

At least Con Air isn't as obviously bad as Turbulence. For starters, this film has a couple of assets that the earlier "terror in the sky" film lacked: Nicolas Cage and John Cusack. While the actors are far from their career best here (in fact, Cage often looks bored), mediocre acting from these two is preferable to what we got from Ray Liotta and Lauren Holly. Actually, the really colorful performances belong to the actors playing the criminals. In addition to Malkovich's predatory Cyrus (a role he could probably do in his sleep), Ving Rhames gives us a nasty black militant named Diamond Dog Jones, Steve Buscemi is at his creepy best as The Marietta Mangler, and Danny Trejo is a serial rapist with a tattoo on his arm for each of his victims. (Incidentally, the movie's ambiguous attitude towards Buscemi's character, a child murderer, is disturbing.)

Con Air divides the characters into clearly-defined groups of good and bad (with the members of the latter category vastly outnumbering those of the former). Predictably, with no shades of gray, there isn't one interesting character. Cameron, a candidate for sainthood, has a spotless record -- even the murder that sent him to prison was justifiable. He's too clean to be anything but bland, and, worse still, Scott Rosenberg's script doesn't give him any of the one-liners that we've come to expect from action heroes in this sort of movie. He's like John McLane of Die Hard without the wisecracking charisma.

Another thing that's noteworthy about Con Air is how poorly it's patched together. In his recent review of the movie Rough Magic, film critic Roger Ebert made the observation that "It's a cliché to talk about great visuals, since if you point a camera in the right direction you can make almost anything look good." Somehow, the cinematographer of Con Air (with an assist from the editor) manages to disprove this theory. With the exception of a few nicely composed shots, the film's look is uniformly stale.

Action movies are typically lauded for their tremendous special effects and their ability to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. Con Air falls short in both categories. In fact, beyond some scenery-chewing by several over-the-top actors and a couple of mildly engaging chase sequences, there's little here to justify the seemingly endless two hour length. Sitting through this movie is like watching a dog running in circles chasing its tail -- the amusement factor dies quickly as the situation become repetitive. Unless you're desperate for a way to kill time, Con Air is one flight you can afford to miss.

Con Air (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 1997-06-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1