Con Air is a 1996 action blockbuster directed by Simon West, and has a reputation for being ridiculous, unbelievable and over the top – one that’s entirely deserved. In the vast majority of instances, that’s a bad thing that only drags a film down, but once in a while it just adds to the schlocky charm. Con Air is firmly in the latter category. A major contributing factor to your forgiveness of the silly plot (especially in the last act) is the absolutely stellar cast: John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, John Cusack, Danny Trejo, Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle, Colm Meaney, and of course, the leading man, the one true God himself, Nicolas Cage.
Cage plays Cameron Poe, a highly decorated, recently-retired National Ranger with a questionable Alabama accent, who we first meet enjoying a quiet night in a bar with his newly pregnant wife Tricia. Unfortunately, Tricia attracts the attention of some drunks who have no respect for Poe, even in his uniform. When they leave, the men attack Poe, pulling a knife on him, and in self-defence he punches the leader’s septum into his brain, killing him. In this crazy fantasy version of the United States, the courts routinely send their highly decorated war heroes to prison for eight years, even if the guy they accidentally killed was about to stab them in front of their pregnant wife. Poe takes it all in his stride, however, takes advantage of a golden opportunity to grow his hair all long and gross, and serves his eight-year stretch with all round chill guy Baby-O, who doesn’t seem to be in prison for any discernible reason. When his parole date falls on his daughter’s birthday, Poe couldn’t be more thrilled. All he has to do to meet her is catch a ride on The Jailbird, a transport plane for inmates.
After a rocky start that doesn’t fill the viewer with much hope for what’s to come, it’s the introduction of John Cusack and the psychotic passengers of The Jailbird that restores some faith. Cusack reportedly doesn’t like talking about the film and regrets taking the role, though his character is actually quite well formed, his performance is solid as always, and he contributes greatly towards giving Con Air some credibility. John Malkovich is brilliantly hammy as the sassy and sociopathic leader of the gang, Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, and his obvious relish of each and every porcine line of shonky dialogue also carries a lot of the film and stops it from straying into just plain silliness.
That isn’t to detract from the supporting players, however; a less craggy (but still pretty craggy) Danny Trejo plays a horribly sleazy and slimy serial rapist, one whom even Cyrus can’t abide. Ving Rhames is a hulking and merciless Black Panther-style militant named Diamond Dog, and Steve Buscemi, whilst arguably only appearing in a cameo role, gives one of his most memorable turns as the genuinely unsettling Garland Green. One tense scene with an unfathomably sweet little girl sticks with you in particular (though that is in part because she is inexplicably hanging out at an abandoned airfield all by herself). Like Malkovich and Cage, they all thoroughly get into the trashiness of the film too, which weirdly serves to make it less trashy, as they’re all accomplished actors.
One of the most enjoyable things about Con Air is how it constantly surprises you. In amongst the numerous dumb plot points and explosive set pieces that are there to just look cool (the final scene on the Las Vegas Strip in particular), it consistently slips in some genuinely clever little actions and decisions from the cast, repeatedly drawing you back in before it threatens to veer into ridiculous territory. Cage in particular spends the film flitting between idiocy and inspiration, whilst Malkovich is definitely up there with the more competent action movie villains. The film is also surprisingly political, and doesn’t shy away from addressing the importance placed on race within prison. Cyrus is unashamed of his racism, using racial slurs openly to the faces of fellow inmates, and openly admitting he’s just using them to pull off his plan. The taboos go the other way too, in particular from Dave Chappelle and Ving Rhames; if Con Air is going to tackle a somewhat controversial aspect of prison culture, at least it does so equally. There’s even the inclusion of a highly camp transvestite character, who is a caricature to the point of being offensive, but is also portrayed very positively as being adept and competent. It’s a confusing film…
Con Air could very easily have been lost in the sea of dumb action flicks of the ’90s, but an unusually strong cast, some memorably gruesome death scenes and a surprisingly political edge made sure it stuck around for longer than the opening weekend, providing trashy, yet confusingly enjoyable entertainment for nearly 20 years. If you’re in the market for a big, bombastic blockbuster, you could do much worse than this bizarrely great ’90s classic. Though do feel free to switch off before LeAnn Rimes gets into her stride over the credits. Nobody needs to sit through that.