In 1996, The Rock introduced Nicolas Cage as an action hero. He’d tried before with Firebirds but this was the real deal. He’d just won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas but Jerry Bruckheimer (with Don Simpson) knew how to make mainstream audiences appreciate his quirkiness. By the time previews for next summer’s movies started, we were all ready for the next Nicolas Cage action movies! Con Air promised all the bravado of The Rock with an even greater cast of badasses.
I sort of knew Con Air couldn’t possibly be as good as The Rock, so I was mentally prepared for it just being solid. The fact that Face/Off measured up weeks later was unbelievable (Face/Off retrospective coming soon). I still think it is an important moment for Nicolas Cage. You could no longer dismiss The Rock as a one off or say Sean Connery was the action hero and Cage the sidekick. Con Air rests entirely on Cage’s pumped up shoulders, and he shows he can do the all American action hero, not just the reluctant everyman.
The most ’90s thing about Con Air is that long hair was cool on guys. Everyone from Steven Seagal to Michael Bolton had it in the ‘90s. So it was the most badass thing Cameron Poe (Cage) could have done to let his hair grow during his seven year prison stint. Today the thing to do would be to shave it bald. I’d always wanted to be able to have long hair but mine was too curly to grow down my back. I got close once and did Cameron Poe for Halloween once. I showed Cage this picture and he recognized it without even having to explain it.
Cage got into action hero shape for The Rock but had to fight to have one shirtless scene to show it off. For Con Air he made sure to be in a tank top the entire second half. He’s basically wearing John McClane’s costume from Die Hard except with shoes.
Cameron Poe is the all American hero. He’s an Army Ranger (support our troops), believes in God, and a defender of women. That way Con Air has the best of both worlds. Either Cameron Poe embodies your values, or he’s a loving wink at what America was supposed to consider heroic in 1997.
The circumstances of Cameron Poe’s incarceration were always flimsy. I was 19 when I saw Con Air and even I knew that anyone with special combat training would be considered a lethal weapon by the court, even in self-defense. Post-Spider-Man I now understand with great power comes great responsibility. When you have that kind of strength you are also responsible for saving idiots from themselves. It would be great if assholes would just learn not to mess with people, but they won’t. It’s up to us. John Wick still has to deal with this today.
Once it’s established that noble Cameron Poe is only in prison for a bad plea deal, the film essentially calls roll for its colorful villains. It’s sort of like a macho one act play aboard this plane that takes a break every once in a while to crash or run from fire in slow motion. There’s good convicts vs bad convicts, smart criminals trying to manage dumb ones, and problems that need to be solved like getting Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson) his insulin during this whole crisis.
That works because the confines of the story make the action more sporadic. Poe fights Billy Bedlam (Nick Chinlund) in the cramped cargo hold over the bunny. The bunny becomes the film’s real damsel in distress and responsible for the film’s most quoted line. Most of the big stunts happen when they land the plane, like dropping a crane on a plane and flying a car like a kite, or the helicopter chase/Las Vegas finale. These days it works. We’re now so assaulted by set piece after set piece that Con Air’s buildup to climactic set pieces feels like a relief.
It was sort of a who’s who of movie villains too. John Malkovich had already done In the Line of Fire. Ving Rhames was coming off Pulp Fiction where Marsellus Wallace wasn’t necessarily a villain, but he was a crimelord. Danny Trejo was racking up his credits and this was the beginning of Steve Buscemi as the comic relief in action movies. Could you get any more Hollywood than playing a cannibal murderer for laughs?
The criminals still have morality. They all agree the rapist is the lowest of the low. Yet Johnny-23 (Trejo) has the same bravado as everyone else, claiming he’d be Johnn- 600 if they knew the truth. Even the rapists of Con Air are the biggest, baddest rapists you’ve ever seen.
There’s some weirdness I took for granted in 1997. Like Garland Green (Buscemi) comes across a little girl playing alone in an empty pool with her dolls near an airfield. There’s a trailer park but who lets their daughter play unattended in a junkyard essentially? It’s very possible she’s all in Garland’s head. I certainly didn’t fully understand the context of black militant Nathan Jones (Rhames) gleefully whipping the white convicts as they drag the plane out of the dirt!
The fact that everything is just the most extreme version of itself just tickles me. Cameron needs to send a message, he writes it on a dead body and throws it out of the plane. The gratuitous excess of Cyrus (Malkovich)’s death is magnificent. He’s flung from a crashing fire truck through a window, electrocuted and dropped in an outdoor factory where his head is crushed.
While Con Air may only be a small step in Nicolas Cage’s oeuvre, it is a fun one. And if you think Cage played it too straight as Cameron Poe, Face/Off comes out a few weeks later and that is double Cage, exponential even!
My greatest regret of Con Air is that when I worked at the movie theater, we had a huge banner of Con Air hung up and I took it home after the summer. I had it up on my wall in college, but it’s gone now, must have been lost in one of my moves. I’ve scoured eBay and even asked Jerry Bruckheimer himself for one but they’re lost to the ether of time. If anyone from a 1997 movie theater still has a wall size Con Air banner, let me know, but it still won’t be the same one I rescued from Apex Cinemas 20 years ago.