90s Movie Challenge Week 30: Con Air (1997)

All aboard, you bunch of 90s loving reprobates! We’re going on a journey! We got you a seat right next to Claire Skinner, and she’s known to be somewhat garrulous in the company of thieves. (Garrulous? What’s that? Ed.) That would be loquacious, verbose, effusive. chatty. And along the way she’s going to tell us just why 1997’s Con Air is such an awesome thrill ride.

Looking for a film with complex characterisation and great emotional depth? Then may I respectfully suggest you move along, please, as we’re about to board the 1997 action spectacular, Con Air. What it does have is more explosive action set-pieces than a Michael Bay movie; a bucket load of famous 90s actors; and Nic Cage in a vest so sweaty even John McClane would refuse to wear it. Oh, and Deep Space Nine’s Miles O’Brien in shades, driving a car with the number plate ‘AZZ KIKR’. Subtle, it is not.

I remember watching the ‘Holy Trinity’ (as Den of Geek called it) of Nic Cage films (The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off) in the Southampton Ocean Village cinema in the second half of the 1990s (No longer there, as of 2018, alas!) These were some of my most enjoyable cinema experiences – Nic Cage’s intensity; the visual spectacle of the action sequences and the humorous dialogue all working much better on the big screen in a full cinema than on my living room TV in the 2020s.

You can argue, and many have, about which of the three is the best, (and probably my personal favourite is Face/Off due to its sheer bonkersness, if that’s even a word!); but Con Air is certainly a strong contender for the crown. Based on the real-life transfer of prisoners via airplane, by the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (nicknamed Con Air, from which the film derives its name) the opportunities for disaster inherent in this interesting concept are exploited to the full. Director Simon West’s background in music videos (including Rick Astley!) is obvious in the film’s use of music (such as ‘Sweet Home Alabama’) alongside key action moments.

There are no complex characters in Con Air – this is a world of white knights, like Cage’s US ranger turned convict Cameron Poe (Poe by name, po-faced by nature) and US Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack), in conflict with a range of rapists, thugs, criminal masterminds (notably John Malkovich’s charismatic Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom) and even serial killers (Steve Buscemi’s uncanny Garland Greene).

Perhaps unsurprisingly in such a male-dominated film, the female roles are few and far between with the strongest role reserved for Rachel Ticotin’s prison guard Sally Bishop. Poe’s long-suffering wife Trisha has little to do but wait around for him, looking beautiful but slightly bored. Others far wiser than me have pointed out the absurdities of the film’s plot – why does Poe serve 8 years for what is effectively self-defence against several armed men? Why does he go to San Quentin prison in California when he’s tried and convicted in Alabama? Why do the police and FBI let Poe and his wife enjoy their quiet reunion at the end of the film without whisking him away to interrogate him about the recent dramatic events he’s been a key participant in? The film’s saving grace is it is well aware of its own ridiculousness and the script emphasizes these absurdities rather than shying away from them.

Other films of 1997 might be more thought-provoking – Amistad or Contact come to mind – but few were as simply enjoyable as Con Air, although Air Force One gave it a run for its money. What is it about villains on aeroplanes which is just so damn entertaining?!

Come back next week as we finally reach our destination where we’ll do time in the pokey with our good chum CJ Dee from Gotham City Times. So get busy reading, or get busy… er… not reading!

That’s right! From 1994, it’s The Shawshank Redemption!

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