ByTom Chapman, writer at
tweet: tomtomchap Warden of the North - bearded, tattooed and square eyed 'til the end
Tom Chapman

The flowing long hair of , Steve Buscemi creepily clutching a doll, and Danny Trejo as the ruthless rapist. What sounds like a gritty HBO's True Detective Season 3 is in fact 1997's Con Air. Just two years after America started the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System, Simon West's film about an aircraft full of convicted criminals is almost unrivalled in its brilliance as a '90s action flick. Alongside the likes of Cliffhanger, True Lies, and of course Cage's stint in Face/Off, Con Air is smothered in a generous helping of Blockbuster Video cheese.

Mustering an impressive $224 million on $75 million, West even joked in 2014 that if there were ever to be a sequel, it could be set in space — given some of Cage's film choices, that might not be so out of the realm of possibility. Con Air went on to be something of a cult favorite of '90s films, and its all-star cast is still ruling Hollywood today. I would argue that it is not only one of the best Nicolas Cage films out there, but one of the best films out there, period. So, with a film that scores just 54% on Rotten Tomatoes, what's all the fuss about?

The Premise

'Con Air' [Credit: Buena Vista Pictures]
'Con Air' [Credit: Buena Vista Pictures]

Somewhere between The Rock and Gone in 60 Seconds, Con Air arrived at the peak of Cage's career as Cameron Poe, an ex-army ranger who is imprisoned for protecting his wife. While Cage normally treads that fine line between sympathetic lead (Being John Malkovich) and manic villain (Face/Off), Poe is unique as the loving father who is done wrong by the justice system. After being incarcerated for eight years, Poe is due to be released after being flown to Alabama on the "Jailbird," a C-123K prison aircraft. In typical '90s action flick style, it was never going to be that easy. Also along for the flight are the dregs of society, including Ving Rhames's "Diamond Dog" — a black supremacist, Nick Chinlund's "Billy Bedlam" — serving eight life sentences, M.C. Gainey's "Swamp Thing" — a Vietnam vet convicted of landing a plane full of drugs — and finally John Malkovich as "Cyrus the Virus" — the film's criminal mastermind and one of the best villains since Hans Gruber. Together they conveniently gel to make a Great Escape of bastards in the sky.

It isn't long before the cons incite a riot and all hell breaks loose in the air. What could have remained as just a battle in the skies, Con Air is clearly split into two halves, effectively going from flying fight to a game of chess on the ground, then back in the air for the third act. Where the film really comes into its stride though is the cat and mouse chase from the authorities. On the right side of the law are John Cusack as US Marshal Vince Larkin and Colm Meaney as DEA Agent Duncan Malloy. Brimming with cast, Con Air had several shock deaths, ridiculous chases on land and sky, and a mind-boggling finale.

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The Characters

'Con Air' [Credit: Buena Vista Pictures]
'Con Air' [Credit: Buena Vista Pictures]

At the heart of Con Air is a Prison Break-esque group of despicable low-lifes However, where Prison Break has you rooting for nearly all the cast, Con Air has the focus almost solely on Poe as the hero. Looking back on films since, you could argue that Con Air serves as a template of sorts for the likes of Suicide Squad, except this one was done right.

It was just the right mix of good and bad characters, which have to be mainly credited to Scott Rosenberg's writing skills. There is just enough hope/hopelessness to keep the viewer on the edge of their seats, and the cast are almost perfectly cast. Rosenberg was friends with both Buscemi and Cusack, writing their parts with them in mind. I'm not sure how Buscemi would feel about being thought of as a child molesting paedophile. However, it is Malkovich's Grissom who rules the roost.

Where it seems to take itself seriously, Con Air succeeds because it actually isn't. Not quite written as your Die Hard, wholly action flick, the characters mean that Con Air is actually a dark (very dark) comedy. You only have to look to the scene where a driver moans about his dirty windshield, only to have a body fall on it, to see what I mean.

It's A Love Story

Among all the bullet-riddled corpses and murderous madmen, any other film would struggle to weave in a love story, but Con Air does it with ease. The film was actually nominated for an Oscar thanks to the inclusion of the LeAnn Rimes's of "How Do I Live," which is one of the great love songs from the '90s. It was a no-brainer that the soundtrack lost out to Céline Dion and Titanic, but any other year and Con Air would probably have walked away with the golden statue.

There are no surprises that Poe makes it to the end of the film to be reunited with his wife, however, the main relationship of the film was actually that of Poe with his daughter. Having being behind bars for the entirety of her life, Cameron had never met his daughter Casey, so their meeting is the ultimate payoff. While it could have been left as your standard shoot em' up, Cage clearly wanted more from the film, and even suggested the idea of having a stuffed bunny as a way to flesh out his character - talking of which...

The One Liners

'Con Air' [Credit: Buena Vista Pictures]
'Con Air' [Credit: Buena Vista Pictures]

With the Batman and James Bond trope of dire one liners from the '90s, Con Air's scripting would look abysmal by today's standards if it made it to screen, but, it somehow still stands as a time capsule of the decade's . It also skirts serious crimes and some pretty touchy issues with a layer of intelligence. The whole irony that the cast dance to "Sweet Home Alabama" on a plane, and considering what happened Lynyrd Skynyrd is just too ironic not to mention, and was picked up in the script too. Colm Meaney was a walking dictaphone of swear words, Danny Trejo was a talking sleazeball, and Cage took the tough guy stance. While Cage takes the emotion of the film, Malkovich shines as Cyrus Grissom and get's the best lines:

Vince Larkin: "Where are you going with my plane, Cyrus?"

Cyrus (The Virus) Grissom: "We're going to Disney Land."

However, the film became infamous thanks to the ludicrous:

"Make a move and the bunny gets it."

It may only have been a small part, but you also had the magic of Dave Chappelle, who confirmed on Inside the Actors Studio that he improvised most of his lines as "Pinball" Parker.

The Stunts

'Con Air' [Credit: Buena Vista Pictures]
'Con Air' [Credit: Buena Vista Pictures]

Helicopter chases, real-life explosions, and a finale that actually lands a plane on a Las Vegas strip, Con Air included all the standard "walk away from an explosion" scenes. While models were used for some of the scenes, the destruction of the casino at the end came straight from real life. The Sands Hotel in Vegas was due for demolition, so West and co. persuaded the owners to let the film help the process along slightly. It was a one-take deal, but it sure worked.

Again cementing himself as a hero of the era, Cage revealed in a behind-the-scenes interviews that he even did most of his own stunts:

"Whether I wanted to or not, I did most of my own stunts in this movie. There were explosions five feet behind me, flaming helicopters dropping right behind me, ball-bearing bullets over my head. So there was a level of intensity, fear, you might say."

There were dangers though, and the film was sadly tragic. One of the effect crew, Phillip Swartz, was killed on set when crushed by the plane used for the Jailbird and the film was dedicated to his memory. You can clearly see where West spent the budget, and not a cent was spared when it came to making Con Air an all-American display of talent.

'Con Air' [Credit: Buena Vista Pictures]
'Con Air' [Credit: Buena Vista Pictures]

A stars and stripes tribute to everything that was 1990s America, Con Air is an underrated gem that doesn't deserve the criticism it gets. West's work had already been seen worldwide thanks to the fact that he made the video for Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up," but as his first directorial films, it is no surprise that the success of Con Air led West to direct the likes of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and The Expendables 2. The film may now be 20 years old, but as a guilty pleasure, it is the perfect Saturday afternoon film, so fasten your seatbelts, open the peanuts, and please stow your tray table for take off.

Check out the trailer for Con Air, and don't forget our poll below!


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