Nicolas Cage in ‘Con Air’ – The 90s Action Hero We Never Knew We Needed (Part 2)
Con Air (1997): Part 2 of the Beige Volvo Trilogy
Whoa, baby. This is it. The Nicolas Cage masterpiece we’ve been waiting for. Although there is one more film in The Beige Volvo trilogy, this is the apex of the entire saga. The mecca. The holy grail of not only Cage Action, but all of 90s action. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am talking about… CON AIR! A Jerry Bruckheimer production (his first without longtime co-producing partner Don Simpson, who died during production of The Rock), and directed by former commercial director Simon West, Con Air is a movie so jacked up on testosterone and so gloriously over the top that it double backs on itself.
You could literally feel the dude sweat pouring off the screen. If this movie were a gymnast, it would win all the gold medals at the Olympics. It so perfectly encapsulates everything that was great about 80s action and 90s action. There are just so many good things I can say about this movie. I might make this article a two-parter. Just kidding, but not really. The love I have for this movie is immeasurable. But I know what you’re thinking. Why?? What is it about this movie that makes you love it so much?? Well, let me start at the beginning…
“This Spring, Buckle Up!”
It was 1996. The Rock was just released on VHS after a successful theatrical run. Ahhhh… The good old days of VHS. After popping it in the VCR, the usual stuff occurs: FBI warnings, logos, etc. Then, a trailer came on. But it wasn’t just any trailer. It was the teaser trailer for Con Air. And… my god, was it a thing of beauty. The great Hal Douglas narrating an epic 90 second montage of fire and fury. Cars Crashing. Guns blazing. Fireballs raging. And in the midst of it all, the Cage Man himself. All chiseled and cut up as fiercely as 80s Action Mount Rushmore member Sylvester Stallone was in Rambo III.
And with a beautiful mane of hair swaying so elegantly in the background like Superman’s cape. It was unbelievable. My 12 year old eyes couldn’t believe all the awesomeness they were seeing. As an all American kid in love with all things action, I was in love. I must’ve watched that trailer about 200 times after that. Hell, I’d pop in the VHS just to watch the trailer. To hell with The Rock. And this is coming from someone who loves that movie. But until June 6th 1997, I watched that trailer over and over, practically every day until the movie came out. And when it finally came out?? It was a revelation! A cinematic seminar of bodacious badassness! I was in complete awe in that theater. But that was 1997. It’s 20 years later. Does it still hold up?
Welcome to Con Air
Cage plays Cameron Poe, a former army ranger recently paroled after serving 8 years in prison for killing a man in self defense. How did he kill him you ask? By SHOVING HIS NOSE INTO HIS BRAIN! Nice! He is scheduled to take a flight on The Jailbird, a prisoner transfer plane overseen by US Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack). Also scheduled to take this flight is his friend/cellmate Baby O (Mykelti Williamson), as well as dangerous convicts William “Billy Bedlam” Bedford (Nick Chinlund), Nathan “Diamond Dog” Jones (Ving Rhames), John “Johnny 23″ Baca (Danny Trejo), and Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom (John Malkovich), who are being flown to a new supermax prison. During the flight, Grissom and Jones manage to hijack the plane, and plan on meeting up with drug lord Francisco Cindino (Jesse Borrego) at another transfer, who has conspired with them to escape from custody and flee the country on another plane at a different location.
At that transfer, they acquire pilot Earl “Swamp Thing” Williams (M.C. Gainey) and notorious mass murderer Garland “The Marietta Mangler” Greene (Steve Buscemi) in the process. Having the chance to get off and finally reunite with his wife Trisha and daughter Casey, Poe decides to stay on the plane as to watch over Baby O, who is a diabetic and in desperate need of insulin, and guard Sally Bishop (Rachel Ticotin), who after being taken hostage during the hijacking, is being harassed by Johnny 23, a serial rapist. While on board, he finds “creative” ways to correspond with Larkin, forming an unusual partnership in the process. Poe thought his ranger days were over, but he’s about to find out he still has one day left to be a hero. And today… just happens to be that day.
Love your work!
One of the defining things about Con Air is not just the action, but the cast. I mean, how could it not be? Cage. Cusack. Malkovich. Buscemi. Rhames. Trejo. Chinlund. Hell, even a young Dave Chappelle shows up! This is quality casting here! In my opinion, this is the last great action movie cast until Expendables 2 15 years later, which was also directed by Simon West (Why did I skip the first Expendables? Because the cast in part 2 is better. Sue me.) And leading them is Cage, an all American he-man with a hilariously thick southern drawl. And an amazing mullet. Seriously. His mullet is top 5 movie mullets of all time. I’d put it at number 2, second only to The Boz’s ultra-pelt from Stone Cold. Cage’s Poe is a man’s man. Tough, but caring. Strong, yet sensitive. A man who would just as diligently walk an old lady across the street as he would break a guy’s neck. Justifiably, of course. He isn’t someone who takes pleasure in killing, and after offing a bad guy, is visibly upset. But, if push comes to shove, he will do what he has to do.
Such an interesting contrast to the cold blooded killing machines of the 80s. Just a hard man with a conscience. I like that. Going against him is Malkovich’s Cyrus, a borderline brilliant guy, but sociopathic all the same. Malkovich kinda portrays Cyrus almost like a demented Dennis Miller. Exacting, methodical, and coldhearted, Cyrus is a bad guy’s bad guy. And Malkovich as Cyrus is a blast to watch. A really fun character. Even though he is incredibly evil. Rounding out the leads is Cusack, who seems to be having no fun. Seriously, he walks around with a “why am I here?” expression throughout the entire movie. It’s obvious he did this purely for the check. And while he doesn’t completely sandbag his performance, he is clearly phoning it in. The rest of the cast back them up ably, particularly Buscemi as Greene, a wholly insane murderer that’s, oddly enough, played for laughs. Yeah, we were still in that weird time when murderers could be considered funny, i.e. Freddy Krueger. But it is what it is, and Buscemi is the true standout of the cast.
Put… the bunny… back… in the box
But enough of that, let’s get to why we’re really here: ACTION!!! Now, I must say… this movie isn’t brimming with wall to wall action. But it feels like it is. And I think that’s because it’s shot, edited and directed with such frenetic energy that the whole thing feels like one long action sequence. It’s as if the movie was coated in nitroglycerin and if it didn’t throw in a thousand pounds of awesome per minute before the end, it would explode. And when the action does come, it is exquisite. Fisticuffs. Epic gun battles. Chases. Crashes. This movie was actually unique in that it combined 80s action movie aesthetics with 90s action movie characteristics, particularly the disaster movie. See, back in the mid to late 90s, disaster movies were all the rage. Twister. Independence Day. Daylight. Dante’s Peak. Just to name a few. Big destruction scenes were really popular, and that seems to have been incorporated in Con Air, much to our pleasure.
Things blow up really big and really good. Debris flies past people only inches away from their heads. And fireballs. Fireballs everywhere. Fireballs engulf so many scenes in this I think this actually started out as a sequel to The Towering Inferno. Irwin Allen would be proud. Do I have a favorite sequence? Gotta be between the epic gun battle at the airfield and the plane crash on the Las Vegas strip. Awe Inspiring stuff here. Simon West really steers this ship confidently, stylishly and assuredly. I thought he was going to give Michael Bay a run for his money after this, but that turned out to not be the case. He did a few things here and there (The General’s Daughter, Tomb Raider) but nothing came close to the peaks he reached with Con Air until Expendables 2. And after watching that, I believe he still has it. He just needs the right projects.
Make a move and the bunny gets it
Any nitpicks? Aside from the aforementioned phoned in performance from Cusack, I have a problem with SPOILER ALERT!!!: the deaths of the villains at the climax. Now, I don’t mean Cyrus. He has an epically badass death. See, I am a firm believer in that an action movie is only as great as its main villain, and a great villain deserves a great death. And by god, does Cyrus get one! No, that’s not it. Actually, my problem is with the deaths of Nathan and Swamp Thing. You see, after the plane crashes in Las Vegas, Cyrus, Nathan and Swamp Thing escape and steal a fire truck as Poe and Larkin give chase on motorcycles. And while trying to jump onto the fire truck, Poe sends his bike crashing into Nathan, killing him. And… it’s such a cop out of a death.
It’s as if the screenwriter could not think of a creative way to get rid of Nathan, so he just wrote “The bike crashes into him… for some reason.” Same thing with Swamp Thing. Larkin jumps on top of the truck and pumps water into it (how he manages to accomplish this as the truck is in motion and therefore cannot pump water is beyond me), and when the truck crashes into a car, Swamp Thing goes flying through the windshield… because?? I know that can actually happen, but the truck was still in motion! It was going full speed ahead! How does he go flying through the windshield?? Ugh! Look at me, looking for logic in Con Air. I should know better. END OF SPOILERS!!!
All in all, in my opinion, Con Air still holds up 20 years after its release. One of, if not the, quintessential 90s action movies. It takes what we loved about our action movies in the 80s and blended it with what we liked in our action in the 90s. And with Cage kicking ass as only he can, makes it even better. With this one, he went from Nic Cage to Nicolas MuthaF**kin Cage in a millisecond. He could do no wrong in my eyes. He was 2 for 2, baby. Back to back grand slams out the park. But, like all good things… Yep, we are now up to the final chapter in The Beige Volvo trilogy. The swan song. The epic conclusion known as… Face/Off. But that is another tale.
My daddy taught me that
Side note: I can understand if you’re not convinced as to why I love this movie so much. So let me leave you with this little tidbit. Back when this came out, The Lost World: Jurassic Park had come out a month prior. Me and my dad had seen it and enjoyed it. The weekend Con Air was released, my father had some business to attend to. So we most likely wouldn’t see it until Sunday. My cousin was over that weekend, so I hung out with him in the meantime. Then, out of nowhere, my older cousin’s husband (who also lived in the same building with me and my family) walked up to us and invited only my cousin to go with him to see Lost World. I wasn’t invited because he said I already saw it. Mind you, he didn’t know that. He just said I couldn’t come because I’d seen it.
So, they left and I dejectedly went back upstairs to my apartment. When my father heard about this, he told me to grab my stuff and get in the car. He must’ve been so tired from working, but he said “Nobody is gonna leave my son stranded like that!” So we went to a theater with the biggest screen I had ever seen in my life. Got me a huge bucket of popcorn with some Twizzlers and a big soda, and we enjoyed the hell out of that movie. And when we got home? “Hey man, where’d you go? You went to see Con Air? Why didn’t you tell us? We would’ve went with you guys instead of Lost World!” And I said… “It’s ok. I already saw that with my dad.” HA! I was petty! But that’s why I love that movie so much. Not just because of how awesome it is, but because it’s a reminder of how awesome my dad is. Just thought I’d close out with that. Until next time…
Article by The Cinema Drunkie – a cinematic alcoholic from the mean streets of Brooklyn, New York who spends his all of his free time getting drunk off the beauty of all things movie related… and vodka. You can check out his blog here.
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