It's been said that Hollywood doesn't have an original idea in its collective creative trust. True enough, once Tinsel Town latches on to a winning plot, it tends to embrace formula over originality until the public tires of its confections. Such is definitely the case with director Michael Bay. On the heels of Bay's The Rock (1996) came a spate of like-minded action/thrillers put forth by other directors with more blood lust and epic carnage intent on stealing at least part of Bay's thunder for this genre in pot boiler pulp cinema.
Regrettably, few movies that followed The Rock came anywhere close to matching Bay's skill for storytelling, thereby hastening audiences premature exhaustion for the witless summer blockbuster. Of this latter ilk, director Simon West's Con Air (1997) remains the most obvious poster child; a dirty, harrowing and largely implausible big budget action movie that plays more as a poorly conceived homage to Michael Bay.
The film stars Nicholas Cage, this time cast as U.S. Army Ranger, Cameron Poe. A decorated military hero of Desert Storm, Poe is assaulted by three drunkards while escorting his pregnant wife Tricia (Monica Potter) for a night on the town. In the ensuing struggle, Poe employs his military training to subdue his attackers, but accidentally kills one of them. He is convicted of first degree manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in a Federal penitentiary.
Paroled eight years later, Poe is being flown to freedom on 'the Jailbird'; a C-123 plane along with other prisoners, including serial rapist/murder Garland Greene (Steve Buscemi) who are slated to be transferred to a new Supermax prison. DEA agent, Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney) encourages U.S. Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack) to allow an undercover agent aboard the Jailbird to bleed information from one of the prisoners, drug lord Francisco Cindino (Jesse Borrego) before his incarceration.
Unhappy chance for Poe that the prisoners, led by resident psychotic, Cyrus 'the Virus' Grissom (John Malkovich) gain control of the plane. The Jailbird is hijacked and flown to Carson City, where Cyrus poses as a guard while another prisoner, Joe Pinball Parker (David Chappelle) smuggles its transponder onto a private touring plane to divert authorities from tracking their flight.
Poe manages too late to alert authorities of this hijacking and Malloy, unaware that the transponder is no longer aboard the Jailbird, orders a helicopter strike on the innocent tourism plane instead. Meanwhile, Cyrus and Poe discover that Parker did not make it back to the Jailbird before takeoff. His body is wedged in the Jailbird's landing gear, thereby threatening the safety of their escape landing.
While pretending to befriend Cyrus by freeing Parker's corpse from the Jailbird's landing gear, Poe manages to attach a message to Parker's lapel detailing Cyrus' escape. Recovering Parker's body and the note, Larkin, realizes that Poe is on his side and takes his cue to follow the Jailbird to Lerner Airfield for an ambush.
At Lerner, Poe befriends one of the prisoners, Mike O'Dell (Mykelti Williamson) who is a diabetic. Securing insulin to save his life, Poe and O'Dell strike up a friendship. Meanwhile, Cyrus cannot understand why the escape plane promised by Cindino has failed to materialize.
While skulking about the abandoned air strip, Larkin and Poe are briefly united, sharing information about Cyrus' plans. Larkin discovers that Cindino's escape plans were never to include Cyrus or the other prisoners. Seeing Cindino about to make his getaway aboard a small private jet, Larkin thwarts the departure by using a crane to rip the tail section off his plane. Learning of Cindino's treason, Cyrus finishes the job by blowing up the remainder of Cindino's plane with Cindino inside.
The National Guard arrive on the scene. However, in the resulting hailstorm of bullets, Cyrus manages to escape with Poe and Mike still trapped inside the Jailbird. Suspecting Poe to be the informant, Cyrus threatens to kill him. Mike accepts the blame and Cyrus shoots him first. However, as Cyrus takes aim at Poe for his part in the espionage, the National Guard open fire on the Jailbird, puncturing its fuel tank and forcing Poe to make an emergency landing on the Las Vegas strip.
In the absurdly obtuse last act of this film, the ensuing carnage and glittering destruction of many a Vegas landmark, Poe makes an emergency landing in front of the Sands Hotel. However, Cyrus and two other prisoners escape capture. Larkin and Poe pursue them on motorcycle and eventually hunt down and kill Cyrus.
At long last, the bedraggled Poe is reunited with Tricia and Casey (Landry Allbright); the daughter he's never seen. As if to end the film on a comedic high note, in the final moments of screen time, a seemingly reformed Garland Greene is seen seated at a high stakes craps table inside the Sands, living the life of a successful Vegas gambler.
On several levels, Con Air isn't particularly engaging entertainment. The film's pluses add up to the chemistry and interaction between that desperate assortment of reprobates along for the flight. On occasion, dialogue exchanges between these various warring factions can be crisp. However, as the narrative winds its way to an inevitable conclusion profanity rather than prose adopt the spirit and tone. At least casting is up to snuff, with Cage, Cusack and Malkovich all lending authenticity to their roles.
Regrettably, Scott Rosenberg's screenplay is a mess of clichés. Seemingly suffering from having seen far too many like-minded action thrillers, Rosenberg throws every tired and careworn bit of nonsense at the camera that he can think of. In effect, he paint-balls the audience with a claptrap of regurgitated snippets excised from other movie thrillers.
Yes - the action moves like gangbusters, but not necessarily in a forward direction; instead swirling around and around in desperate need of a denouement. As a result, at the end of the exercise the audience, like Poe, is utterly grateful to be back on solid ground with the end credits scrolling up. Con Air will have its fans - but arguably, they could find much better excitement to fuel their wonder lust for mindless action elsewhere.
Buena Vista's Blu-Ray offering easily bests its pathetic non-anamorphic standard DVD released in 1998. Owing to Blu-Ray's superior bit rate, color fidelity and fine details take a quantum leap forward on this disc. Colors, though refined, don't seem to have that pronounced 'wow' factor we've grown accustomed to on Blu-Ray but are pleasing nevertheless. As for the audio, it is the identical 5.1 Dolby Digital mix from the standard DVD and not a 7.1 lossless audio upgrade. A few short featurettes, including one detailing the destruction of Vegas sequence round out your viewing enjoyment.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)