If an 8 ball of cocaine suddenly burst to life as any movie, it would be Con Air. Dense, sweaty, and startlingly eccentric, this is a unique cinematic experience that somehow elevates ferocious stupidity into an undeniable art form: It’s like Picasso meticulously painting a scene from Baywatch, or a gorgeous arrangement of shimmering trash. Indeed, Con Air is so confounding, I’m not sure how to sort my feelings on it. Is this the best high ever, or the worst?
One thing’s for sure: If you’re casting a movie that amounts to 115 minutes worth of refined booger sugar, there’s no better lead actor than Nicolas Cage. For the role of Cameron Poe, Cage bulks up his traps and unfurls a magnificent Harlequin mullet that renders him somewhere between a muscle-bound Jesus and Travis Tritt spinnin’ some Uncle Ben’s in the microwave. As if today wasn’t a great enough day to be alive, Cage also imbues Poe with a Forrest Gump drawl that transforms his dialogue into Othello, as read by Jethro Clampett. Cage’s presence alone makes Con Air addictively watchable, much like those YouTube videos where goats scream like humans.
The movie begins just as most Jerry Bruckheimer productions do, with ‘Merican flags fluttering in a golden sunset, interspersed with Desert Storm stock footage and military drums on the soundtrack. Poe stands with a squad of fellow Army Rangers as they receive an honorable discharge. He throws up a salute and clenches his jaw, and I wait patiently for a bald eagle to land on his shoulder and let out gloriously patriotic screech. Alas, it didn’t happen, marking one of the movie’s few missteps.
In the next scene, Poe arrives home to meet his wife (Monica Potter) and their unborn daughter. Unfortunately, it’s pouring rain and Tricia Yearwood is belting “How Do I Live,” so you know shit’s about to go down. Sure enough, a couple of scuzzy barflies roll up and insult Mr. and Mrs. Poe. Even worse: They insult the U.S. of A. One of these goobers pulls a switchblade, prompting Poe to kill the guy in one blow.
Poe is immediately arrested, and a judge slaps him with the max sentence. Full disclosure: I’m not a lawyer or anything, but I have seen My Cousin Vinny several times. This sounds like the very definition of self-defense. So, unless your lawyer is Steve Urkel–or, perhaps even Stefan Urquelle–you should never see the inside of a police station, let alone a jail cell. This is one of the most unrealistic things in Con Air, and that, my adorable readers, is saying something.
Anyway, Poe heads off to the clinky-poo, where he spends the next eight years sending Flowers for Algernon-style letters back home and dreaming of sweet freedom. As his sentence concludes, Poe rooms with Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson), a reformed convict who is also a diabetic–gee golly, I wonder if that’s gonna come up later in the movie, you guys? The good news is that Poe and Baby-O get discharged. The bad news? They have to travel aboard Con Air, a massive transport plane modified to hold the most dangerous criminals in the world.
This hayride to hell is overseen by U.S. Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack), who must be the smartest dude in the movie, because he wears socks with sandals. Ol’ Vince helpfully reads each killer’s dossier, as they board the plane in slow motion and tasty guitar licks wail on the soundtrack. Right now, my friends, is when the gumbo starts gettin’ real spicy:
The convicts are headed up by Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich), a strangely mellow psychotic. His right hand man is Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames), a criminal who disguises his misdeeds behind radical politics. Garland Greene (Steve Buscemi) gets hauled aboard strapped to a Hannibal Lecter gurney. He’s killed 23 people…that they know of. This rogue’s gallery gets rounded out by Pinball (Dave Chappelle), a smartass con who probably could’ve been a comedian in a different life.
This is gonna be a huge, huge spoiler, but…the prisoners hijack the plane. I’m really sorry if that ruins the movie for you, but there it is. Cyrus and his cohorts kill a few guards, take a few hostages, and head toward a country with no extradition.
What follows is somehow comfortably predictable and batshit wacky, all at once: You want to see Cage in a violent standoff over a stuffed bunny? Check. How about a balls-out brawl through the Vegas strip? Done. What’s that–you need Buscemi in an empty swimming pool, sipping pretend tea with a little girl and singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”? Gotcha covered. And, the insulin! Somebody get Baby-O his insulin!
This same craziness applies all the performances. We’ve already talked about Cage, so let’s touch on Malkovich. Actually, nobody should touch Malkovich. To be fair, the actor ably sends up his own résumé of off-kilter villains by chowing the scenery and over-enunciating every word like he’s doing Strindberg in Central Park. Meanwhile, Buscemi actually underplays his Dahmer clone, and the result is both humorous and terrifying. Cusack spends most of the movie staring at monitors and screaming into flip phones, but he does both really well. Finally, Danny Trejo gives the film one of its gnarliest convicts, as a serial rapist named Johnny 23. See? This is fun for the whole family!
Con Air feels like one of those fever dreams you might have after a dinner of molten Thai. It’s delirious, over the top, and stays with you longer than any normal dream ever could. So, let’s flip around to my opening question: Is this the best high, or the worst? The crazy answer is that I still don’t know. As the end credits roll, I can only say that I’m coming down off of something. And, someday, I’ll probably take the same trip again.
115 min. R. Showtime.
Click here to check out Cinemavino‘s hilarious take on Con Air!