My Buddy is a Cage – ‘Con Air’ (1997)

I don’t think Con Air is much of an action film. Of course it has the gigantic action set piece on the Lerner Airstrip. And then a ridiculously drawn out plane landing in the heart of Vegas. But the 60 or so minutes that come before that stuff? Bureaucratic paper pushing; prison heists; elements of a crime thriller; in the case of its opening minutes, 90’s romance cheese. Because how do I live without you?

Simon West’s directorial debut is a ballsy, all out fireball of a movie, and it’s bursting with absurdity, scenery chewing, and unevenness. Far and away the best part of Scott Rosenberg’s lopsided script is its big motley crew of prison baddies: Ving Rhames’ black nationalist Diamond Dog; Danny Trejo’s serial rapist Johnny-23; Steve Buscemi’s Hannibal Lecter pedophile Garland Green; And how could one forget John Malkovich as Cyrus THE VIRUS Grissom? Malkovich is so obviously enjoying himself here as I’d venture most of the prison plane’s passengers are. The lines are just too damn great not to sink your teeth into:

  • “Make a move and the bunny gets it.”
  • “For me, you’re somewhere between a cockroach and that white stuff that forms at the corner of your mouth when you’re thirsty.”
  • “Because if your dick jumps of your pants, you jump out of the plane.”
  • [Guard] “It smells like someone shit in your mouth.” “He told me he loved me.”

That last one, delivered with brilliant nonchalance by Dave Chappelle’s wily Pinball, might be terrible if it were delivered by anyone else. By contrast, John Cusack’s milquetoast Federal Marshal and his moments arguing with Colm Meaney are entertaining enough, but when West flips back and forth between DEA paper pushing and a cast of colorful death row inmates making shit jokes, are we really surprised when the former makes our eyes glaze over? And that’s not even including Con Air’s many exposition dumps. The most egregious might be its opening credit sequence, where Cage as Army Ranger Cameron Poe serves out a prison sentence for manslaughter. Layered over all the Executive Producers and the Story credits, Cage and his daughter, whom he’s never met, exchange in a clumsy, forced correspondence of written letters. I appreciate the film dumping this information in the most efficient way possible; less so anytime Cage refers to the wife as his humminberr in Southern voiceover.

Who can’t appreciate that mane? Rather than maintain his army buzz, Cage lets it all go and keeps up his physical regimen, serving time by bulking up in relative solitude. He does befriend Mykelti Williamson, but Williamson’s diabetic sad sack adds little outside of a cheap reason to get Cage to search frantically for an insulin needle. Compelling stuff. Cage’s Southern fried John McClane with his Alabama drawl is so over the top it actually fits right in when he’s surrounded by the plane’s hijackers. Never is this more true than in a particularly great moment in the plane’s cargo hold, where Cage is outed as a good guy saboteur to Cyrus’ plan and his daughter’s birthday present is temporarily held hostage:

You probably can make this stuff up.

A lot of Con Air is a messy, inconsistent jumble. The score is basically a combo of a dozen Marines commercials from the late 90’s, its tone is absurdly aggressive, and I fail to see how Cyrus can despise Trejo’s chain rapes but praise Garland Greene for wearing a little girl’s head like a hat. But I suppose I lost that battle as soon as I started to analyze a psychopath’s decisions. And despite all this, Con Air is a massively entertaining ball of crazy with lines that sound like they should be in a movie trailer, a who’s who of character actors, and a back half with more explosions than you can shake a bunny at. Cameron Poe takes pains to remind us he’s just a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. But in Con Air? I’m not so sure there’s a movie Cage is more at home in.

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Want more Cage? You got it.

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