Boston's Alternative Source! image!

R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 06/05/1997, B: Peter Keough,

Fly hard

Con Air is a bumpy ride

by Peter Keough

CON AIR. Directed by Simon West. Written by Scott Rosenberg. With Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Colm Meaney, Mykelti Williamson, Rachel Ticotin, M.C. Gainey, Danny Trejo, Renoly, and Monica Potter. A Touchstone Pictures release. At the Cheri, the Fresh Pond, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

Just before everything starts crashing and blowing up in Con Air, US marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack), upset that his planeload of heinous prisoners being transferred to a new maximum-security prison have hijacked their flight in an escape attempt, quotes, apropos of nothing, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. "The degree of civilization in a society," Larkin intones, "can be judged by observing its prisoners."

If he'd been writing a century later, Fyodor might have also included a society's summer movies, which, this year especially, could bring on charges of cruel and unusual punishment. Con Air is awful only insofar as it regards itself as a movie offering anything of redeeming social value. After about a half-hour of plodding in this delusion, the movie settles into its loud, often ingenious, flights of action fancy punctuated by mordant humor. Con Air is at its best when it doesn't try to be more than a high-priced piece of crap that can indulge in dark humor and witty, if crass, self-parody; at such moments it becomes not only entertaining but significant.

Well, maybe not significant -- any whiff of relevance tends to be death to a product like this. All elements of character, plot, theme, or moral pretentiousness only detract from Con Air's spirit of gleeful inconsequentiality and cheap if often hilarious thrills. The narrative, such as it is, is dispensed with before the opening credit sequence is over, and even at that minimal length it's labored and preposterous. Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage, sporting a bad haircut and a bad Southern accent and little else to recommend him) is an Army Ranger returning from the Gulf War to be reunited with his pregnant wife, Tricia (pretty but nonexistent Monica Potter), in Alabama. Drunken barflies accost them as they embrace, and before the night is over Poe has unintentionally killed a man, whereupon he's sentenced to federal prison.

Treacly voiceovers of letters from Poe, his wife, and their eventual daughter follow. Upon release, he hitches a ride home with Marshal Larkin's convict flight so he can be there in time for young Casey's eighth birthday. Accompanying him is cellmate Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson, adding little to his range since his Bubba in Forrest Gump), with whom Poe reaffirms his heavily underlined Ranger credo of never letting a buddy down. That and his macho resolve to protect female guard Sally Bishop (Rachel Ticotin) provide the rest of his shaky motivation for not bailing out when he has the chance after his fellow passengers erupt.

Although the hijacking itself is savagely masterful, the perpetrators are stock neanderthals: Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (a tepid if sardonic John Malkovich; he was more menacing in The Portrait of a Lady), assisted by black-supremacist Diamond Dog (a colorless Ving Rhames), Swamp Thing (M.C. Gainey), and a crew of other generic, tattoo'd plug-uglies. Poe plays along, trying to establish contact with Marshal Larkin on the ground (the unending ripoffs of Die Hard are shameless and sometimes funny), and the cat-and-mouse game unfolds with fitful suspense from first-time director Simon West until the pyrotechnics and the final descent to the Las Vegas strip begin.

Said pyrotechnics are expensive and at their best have the crazed logic of silent-comedy gags; they're marked by the surreal sense of black comedy that writer Scott Rosenberg showed in Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead. Poe's method of dropping Larkin a note and the fate of a Corvette are especially hilarious. Undermining all this is what the press kit refers to as the "impeccable instincts" of mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who thought the story needed "heart" and "character." That meant injecting platitudes, bad music, and hiring a high-profile cast.

This last group are largely wasted, many literally -- Con Air is one of the bloodier summer movies, boasting some inventive deaths. Only Steve Buscemi survives Bruckheimer's "impeccable instincts," underplaying aloof serial killer Garland Greene (The Silence of the Lambs comes in for some heavy pillaging), whose bemused observations and non-sequiturs are beacons of sanity. As the escaping prisoners rejoice to the strains of "Sweet Home Alabama," Greene comments, "Define irony: a bunch of idiots in a plane dancing to a song made famous by a band that died in a plane crash." The word might not be in Bruckheimer's vocabulary, but Dostoyevsky would have understood.