By all intents and purposes the film is a genre-volcanic spectacle and should not be as entertaining as it is. It should not have been the cinematic success it then became. Con Air is an incoherent mish-mash of styles, tones and themes blended together to make one of the greatest films ever released. And i will do my darnedest to figure out why….
This film came out in the absolute golden era of Cage. The Rock, Con Air and Face Off – the holy trilogy of Cage. A spiritual sibling to Armageddon and Speed. It is moronic, corny, cheesy, fun. If you have been living in Space for the last 23-odd years (presumably exiled to some sort of secret prison colony where the punishment is being-denied-Earth-Media) then allow me to summerise an absolute masterpiece and modern classic for you :
Honorably discharged Army Ranger Cameron Poe is on his way home after serving an 8 year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter, via the Prison Airplane Transport System – a plane with very questionable security protocols. Many of the planes other passengers are Death Row inmates and violent criminals being relocated to a Supermax prison. Poe must survive after the (questionable) security of the plane has been compromised and make it home to see his wife and daughter.
So why does it work / not work?
The first minute of this film is crammed. We’re given exposition on the Rangers (the army unit, not the Scottish league soccerball team), their objectives and identity. And here’s Cage. Uniformed army guy. Soon-to-be-father. Southern. Man. Within 4 and a half minutes this film has setup his backstory and demeanour. By the time Cameron Poe is getting out of prison i feel like we know him deeply.
Cage’s accent becomes a parody of itself very early into the film and lodges firmly. It’s not for us to speculate as to whether this accent is realistic, despite Cage spending some time in Alabama to perfect it, but i can say with some certainty that it becomes believable around the same time.
“Break out the fine china, chill the lemonade and tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree, coz this boy’s comin home to his ladies, comin home forevaaaaaaaaa”
The interplay between Cusack’s Larkin and Meaney’s Malloy is rib ticklingly entertaining and a match made in absolute heaven. Why do television execs never pick up on a pairing like this when they talk about developing an ultimately ill-fated series’? Even with their initial meeting we are treated to the good cop/bad cop dynamic that will prevail throughout the film and is eventually resolved to a satisfactory standard.
The catwalk scene where the prisoners are introduced is fast paced and slick. Again the exposition is lightening fast with the background of each con delivered densely. This is one of my favourite pieces of modern cinema. It sums the entire film. The tone. The visuals. The soundtrack. All of it is an accurate cross-section during this scene.
A great outing for Malkovich it has to be said. His first interaction with Guard Falzone (a reference to Cusacks role in Pushing Tin perhaps?) sets up the film’s sense of the humour nicely. Even the death of 3 guards in Cyrus’ cell is treated with comedic fashion, as is the death of Pinball (Dave Chapelle, who improved most of his lines). Moments of pure comedy in this film tend to revolve around death. (Pinballs body dropping out of the sky, for instance made for a convincing build up to the line “its got your name written all over it”. Great work, lads)
Story-wise this film is a whirlwind of convenient plot devices and exposition. Think of The Shawshank Redemption on 1000% playback. With explosions. Once the carnage unfolds aboard the plane and the cons set their plan in motion, it escalates at a phenomenal pace.
“Poe, think of your little girl”
The Garland Green reveal sequence is surreal, over the top and wonderfully unnecessary. Despite the self indulgence of it, it serves to contrast his stature and demeanour. Buscemi isn’t just a touch of comic relief, his character is witty and insightful. His input is bathed in logic despite his crimes and implied potential for violence.
From a script writers point of view and as the cast are cons – these characters can pretty much say whatever they want. Whether that is the grotesque murmurings of Garland Green and his “wearing her head like a hat” schtick or Diamond Dogs militant leanings regarding race – the dialogue is presented as acceptable. (Any perpetually offended readers or The Mary Sue users out there like to chime in on this subject or how they’re being oppressed by sunlight?) The point i’m making is – no interaction is without weight and not a word is wasted.
One point i would like to highlight is the reassuring shot of the little girl after her interaction with Garland Green. If they had cut this shot it would have given the film some very sharp teeth indeed. Given his crimes its an unsettling scene steeped in creep. My thoughts are that this was used as a kind of character redemption shot? I think we are herded toward the notion that he has somehow seen the error of his crimes prior to his entrance, that we cut the character some slack based on his placid nature and logic-based sarcastic commentary. Maybe. Either way without this scene it would have added a wholly dark aspect to the entire film.
“On any other day that might seem strange”
There is a shift in Poe’s focus when he gets both his friend to safety and the guard off the plane. I’m not going to get into the DEA’s seemingly normal protocol of bringing Poe’s wife and daughter to the crime scene today…. He chases the cons out of a sense of duty (cos he’s just a top guy) or revenge (presumably cos of the threats made against his daughter). But it does sit awkwardly and when the chase completes the fact still remains that Poe willfully killed Cyrus (whose death was also played for comic effect).
Throughout Con Air it is evident how awkwardly it is scored. The music informs the scenes when the visuals cant facilitate it due to the confined nature of the settings.
HOW DO I LIIIIIIIIIIIIVE WIITHOUT YOUUUUUUUUUU
So what exactly makes this film so good?
All of the elements outlined theoretically should be working against each other or fighting for screen time but somehow find a coherent direction. The most prominent of these elements is the absurdity and pacing of the film in general. I firmly believe its the blend of action, comedy and ultimately pacing that makes it so successful. In most films that include so many elements like this it becomes a mess of styles but where Con Air is concerned we as the audience grant it a license to be absurd.
Essentially this Bruckheimer-infused stew tastes like Michael Bay. It’s the Bay film that Bay never made. Big explosive dumb action at its finest. Con Air is not concerned with your disbelief. The story is told with unflinching conviction and i applaud that like the hungry circus seal i am.