While the movie is far from a masterpiece, it's still a still a fun film filled with memorable characters, amazing action, and quotable lines. ("Put the bunny back in the box.")
To celebrate the film's big 2-0, let's take a look back the entertaining and groan-inducing concoction that is Con Air.
A New Beginning
Released in June 1997, Con Air was notable for being the first movie released by Jerry Bruckheimer on his own, after his split with Don Simpson and the latter's death 16 months earlier. Director Simon West was an unusual choice, having mainly directed music videos (notably for Rick Astley) to that point. He definitely had a style though. West was not only the man who unleashed Cyrus "The Virus" on the world, but also a billion "RickRolls".
The movie was given a relatively large budget for the time of $75 million and made an impressive $275 million. What made it work?
Casting The Cons
Con Air's ensemble casting was inspired on many levels with a mix of A-List players, respectable veterans, and up-and-coming young actors.
John Malkovich had been Oscar-nominated a couple of years earlier for In The Line Of Fire, but he had never played a straight action villain before. Traditionally, the role of Cyrus Grissom would have gone to a Brit and their first choice was indeed Gary Oldman before Malkovich signed on. His Cyrus is snarky, but deadly. Principled, but immoral, and the one guy you don't want to get involved with. Sadly in this film, Cameron Poe has to repeatedly.
Ving Rhames was hot at the time after both Pulp Fiction and the previous year's Mission Impossible. As Nathan "Diamond Dog" Jones he brought a swagger and playful yet deadly aspect to the villain role.
Poe's friend Baby-O was also played by an in-demand at the time actor, with Mykelti Williams having recently being Oscar Nominated in Forrest Gump, while relative newcomers Dave Chappelle, Danny Trejo and Nick Chinlund all rounded out the group of villains.
Rachel Ticotin was familiar from her roles in Total Recall and Falling Down in 1993, she was a strong choice for the female lead and Monica Potter was exactly right as Cage's girl back home.
The Right Blend
The movie had four masterstroke casting choices that made it memorable. This was the movie that brought John Cusack back to the mainstream.
Grosse Point Blank had been a moderate success and reintroduced his wise-ass persona, but it was his annoying but lovable turn as Vince Larkin that made casting directors once again take note. His following movies all had him playing variation of this role. As another character describes him in Con Air, he's an "annoying, bookworm creep." Nevertheless, Larkin is also right and his dogged faith that Poe is the key to resolving the situation helps drive the movie.
Cusack works well in part because of his great chemistry with Colm Meaney. Best known for his role on Star Trek:TNG & Deep Space Nine as Chief O'Brien, Meaney was playing against type as a reckless DEA agent who actually caused the whole problem and thus hates Larkin and everyone on the plane. The movie fizzes when he is on screen with Cusack, both characters are dicks, but they're brilliant together. While Meaney didn't really parlay the role into movie success it kept him busy for a long time afterwards playing similar types.
Dave Chappelle isn't in Con Air for long, but he's great when he is. He famously admitted West had allowed him to ad lib most of his lines and it shows. Whenever Pinball is onscreen, the movie is its most fun. Other than Cameron Poe, he's the one guy you kind of hope will get out of it unscathed, even if he is a scumbag.
The real MVP is Steve Buscemi as Garland Greene. Buscemi became a big name after this performance where he gives the Hannibal Lecter stereotype a hilariously sane twist.
Garland is clearly the smartest guy on the plane, lectures the others on the irony and semantics of their situation and is pretty much normal, except for the fact that he's "The Marrietta Mangler" and butchered 30 people.
A Brit was originally wanted for the role too in Tim Roth, but Buscemi's odd look, deadpan delivery and comic timing make Garland the best character in Con Air. His tea party is both terrifying and strangely uplifting, while his Skynrd joke still gets the best laugh of the film by a long way.
It's all anchored by Cage, who is at both brilliant and frustrating in this film. His Alabama accent is beyond awful, but it's part of the charm of the film. Cage-isms like, "Put the bunny back in the box," drag the movie into further parody territory. However, his journey from exasperation during Garland's "head as a hat" tale to playing the villains at their own game is very well handled by him.
We Hope You Enjoyed Flying Con Air
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Con Air is that it has one of the best last acts of any action movie.
When Poe finally meets his daughter having saved the day it's bizarrely as emotional as the T-800 going into the smelter or any victory Rocky Balboa ever had. It is one of Cage's most underrated moments and helps make the movie memorable.
Con Air is an unapologetic action flick, but has some layers to it as well thanks to the outstanding cast and memorable characters.
The set pieces are great too, especially the initial takeover of the plane and the finale, which was filmed at the real demolition of The Sands in Vegas. You're seeing a real casino being trashed in those scenes and it makes the finale much more vivid.
Is It Still Worth The Ride?
To people of a certain age, Con Air will remain one of their favorite movies. While not quite as fresh in today's world of CGI enhanced super-beings leveling cities, at it's heart it's a thrilling chase movie that realizes how crazy it is and that's part of what makes it great 20 years later.
If you haven't seen it yet, or watched it in a while, give it another go. It's refreshing to see a blockbuster from an era before big films were all about setting up the next 5 movies and destruction was somewhat realistic.
Want another blast from the past? Check out these TV shows that also turn 20 this year.
What Did You Think Of Con Air? Add your memories in the comments below.