Muscles, mullets and Malkovich: has Con Air got even weirder with age?

When Hollywood strapped Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich and a host of bad guys into a plane and crashed it on Vegas, what was the result? An action hit that was half prison flick, half rock video – and is, 20 years on, still dangerous

A ridiculous movie when it was released in June 1997, Nicolas Cage’s bumpy flight Con Air only seems more absurd 20 years later. The debut of UK director Simon West, it is a thundering action blowout so loud, haywire and sentimental that – in perhaps the ultimate backhanded compliment – it is often misidentified as a Michael Bay movie. Certainly it feels like a natural bridge between two of Bay’s pre-Transformers hits: 1996’s The Rock, where Cage first seemed to get a real taste for being an action star, and 1998’s Armageddon, another high-concept blockbuster hip to the benefits of recruiting an overqualified ensemble. All three movies bear the glossy, golden-hued, MTV-derived imprimatur of mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. But thanks to some unpredictable recipe of casting and charisma, Con Air remains the oddest of 1990s popcorn movies: half disreputable prison flick, half gleaming Aerosmith video.

The juicy setup – a prison transport plane commandeered by its “worst of the worst” cargo of convicts, a volatile gang of jailbirds unaware that one of their number is a paroled US Ranger who will do anything to reunite with his family – could probably have carried a decent B-movie without the need for brand-name stars. But Bruckheimer and West stuffed their cast with a murderer’s row of talent. As hijack mastermind Cyrus “the Virus” Grissom, John Malkovich pushed his air of vulpine irritability to glorious new heights, plausibly alpha-dogging a planeload of bad dudes including Ving Rhames, Danny Trejo, a never creepier Steve Buscemi and, in a small but vital part, the livewire standup Dave Chappelle.

Watch a trailer for Con Air

In what could have been the thankless role of a G-man stuck on the ground attempting to wrest back control of the situation, John Cusack adds nervy energy to his usual sleepy-eyed sarcasm and becomes that rare cinematic beast, the FBI agent who actually seems cool. And at the centre of it all, somehow playing the straight man amid all the bombast and bluster, is Cage as Cameron Poe, the burdened soldier who just wants to go home. Despite endless scenes of a massive cargo plane being tossed about and a spectacular series of crashes and explosions, the most impressive visual effect is still Cage’s hair, a luxurious hillbilly mullet, of which Fabio would be proud.

There is a sense, when rewatching Con Air, of a wanton profligacy. Surely some of the $75m budget could have been better spent on telling some other story? Surely actors of this calibre could have been involved in something more meaningful instead? Surely you could wrap up the plot without adding another entire chase sequence in Las Vegas? Yet the feeling that every actor is fully committed to the macho ridiculousness – and given free rein to put some gnarly topspin on their lines – is infectious. For decades, blockbusters have been pejoratively compared to fast food, but Con Air feels super-sized in the best way: a glistening, headbanging assault on the senses.

Nicolas Cage as the soldier who just wants to go home.
Fully committed … Nicolas Cage as the soldier who just wants to go home. Photograph: Bruckheimer/Rex/Shutterstock

Two decades on, has it left a discernible cinematic footprint? It certainly shares some DNA with the Fast and the Furious, a franchise that has increasingly looked to the sky for thrills even if it seems to prefer its heroes bald. And when The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams was brainstorming names for Oscar Isaac’s dashing X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron, surely he was thinking of Cage’s noble asskicker.

More gonzo than Snakes on a Plane, more muscular than Liam Neeson’s Non-Stop, Con Air could proudly claim to be the best aeroplane-related action movie of all time, even if it wasn’t quite the biggest of summer 1997. That honour fell to Air Force One, an equally patriotic but rather more stately movie and one that, sadly, does not hinge on requesting a bunny be put back in a box. Wolfgang Petersen’s movie eventually made $315m worldwide while Con Air stalled at $225m. But ask yourself this: which one would you like to watch right now?


Graeme Virtue

The GuardianTramp

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