Con Air (1997)

D: Simon West
S: Nicholas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich

Jerry Bruckheimer's determination to continue making movies of the kind he and his late business partner Don Simpson used to make millions from would be touching in a bizarre capitalist sort of way if his first solo outing as producer hadn't been quite so bad. As is, he has cast Oscar-winner Nicholas Cage in one of the most bland and unchallenging roles of his career (equalled only by the previous Simpson/Bruckheimer/Cage film, The Rock). Adding insult to injury, he has assembled a crack team of actors in support, including John Malkovich, John Cusack, Ving Rhames, Steven Buscemi and Colm Meaney, spent a fortune on special effects from Dream Quest Images and cranked up the soundtrack with plenty of hard and heavy popular musicians to sell the tie-in album. He has also commissioned a perfectly workmanlike script, dumb to the max with plenty of predictable conflicts and crises between men and machines and bullets and biceps.

But what he has forgotten to do is hire a director with some kind of experience or at least common sense. Tony Scott, for all his flaws, has rendered some convincing action pics in his time for Bruckheimer, including Top Gun, Days of Thunder and Crimson Tide. His sleek visuals and fascination with falling rain can become irritating, but he never, to his credit, destroys the execution of an action scene with unnecessary cutting, and tends to let the tension of the moment build before flying off the handle with cutaways and slow motion. In Scott's hands, Con Air might have worked. But in the hands of debuting helmer Simon West, it stinks of capital investment and doesn't really give the audience a chance for a good time.

It's a dim story of everyday, average, occasionally violent nice guy airborne ranger Cameron Poe (Cage) who kills a redneck in a barroom brawl to protect his pregnant wife and does seven to ten in San Quentin for his heroism. On the day he's released, he is taken aboard the U.S. Marshall Service's special plane for convict transport along with a variety of star hoods and psychos. But evil murderer Cyrus 'The Virus' Grissom (Malkovich) has plans to hijack the aircraft and join with a South American drug lord, avenging himself on the U.S. Penal System in the process. Poe finds himself caught up in the crisis, and must protect female guard Sarah Bishop (Rachel Ticotin) from a fate worse than death at the hands of a multiple rapist and keep his trusted friend and cellmate from going into diabetic shock while trying to foil the baddies' plans and bring down the aircraft safely.
It's all pretty much an excuse to have plenty of muscled, sweaty men go hand to hand against each other in an enclosed space, with a beefed-up Cage leading the pack with his long hair and outrageously deadpan Southern accent. Everyone has a good time, and there is plenty of testosterone and profanity going around, plus one or two good explosions and some throwaway humour. But it's a far from perfect script, with niggling moral questions which are never confronted and a curiously underdeveloped lampoon of Hannibal Lecter in the character of a cool serial killer played by Buscemi.

It takes a competent director to circumvent such problems. Unfortunately, the real problem is West himself, whose MTV-style overdirection makes it an exhausting but not exhilarating action spectacular. With his camera in perpetual motion, and restlessly cutting from close up to mid shot to cutaway, from detail to wide shot, eyeballs to explosions, he never lets the film sit still for a minute even as the characters rush about in frantic eagerness to beat the stuffing out of one another. The result is an excess of visual excitement that never lets the viewer settle in to what's going on (let alone see it properly) and ends up alienating them entirely.

John Ford was the cinema's foremost proponent of the 'wide shot, mid shot, close up' rule, with no time for fancy camera movements or frantic editing. By no co-incidence, he was also a director of some of the forerunners of the modern action picture; adventures and westerns with larger than life heroes saving the world from itself. The lessons he taught have informed a generation of young directors from Spielberg to Tarantino whose roots have been defined in studying the cinema.

West seems to have learned his trade from watching television commercials, and feels it necessary to include as many shots of the product as possible in the shortest possible time (in fact, West's career to date has been as a TV commercial director). The film suffers as a result and if the actors are subtly sending up their one-dimensional caricatures of masculinity, it's difficult to tell given the lack of time to study their faces and bodies in detail.

Not that most people will notice the particulars. Depending of their level of expectation, Con Air might well pass the time amicably. Those more interested in a sociable evening at the pictures with either a large group of cheerful compatriots or a single intimate friend might find it the sort of mindless eye candy to keep them amused in between bursts of hysterical communal laughter or passionate snogging, but anyone compelled to watch the movie on its own terms as a piece of Hollywood entertainment could only find themselves wondering why they bothered.

It plays more like a parody of itself and its ilk without really possessing the irony it even takes time out to discuss (Buscemi lectures Cage on various philosophical questions about our society: quotes from Dostoevsky get dropped with apparent concern for their relevance to the situation: there seems to be a debate on the pros and cons of the penal system in there somewhere (no pun intended), but it's difficult to tell). It is neither as straight out stupid as previous Simpson/Bruckheimer outings nor as entertaining, and the result is a low-octane, high volume adventure which will please only the most undemanding action fan with nothing better to watch on video.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.