Nowadays assassins know if they piss off John Wick they’ll die. Twenty years ago, movie killers were learning to “put the bunny back in the box” if requested by ex-US Ranger Cameron Poe – a man jailed for manslaughter and now on his way home to his daughter with the aforementioned toy bunny as a gift.
Con Air is one of those films I thought I’d seen, and in fact probably have seen, but in bits, and in the wrong order. And I really enjoyed watching it all the way through, though to be honest at times it made as little sense to me in the right order.
But that failure is probably all mine, as this is a traditional action movie, told in a linear way. Poe (Nicolas Cage) is going home, finally paroled eight years into a ten year sentence. He’s being given a lift on a flight taking the “worst of the worst” prisoners, a group described as “pure predators”, to a newly opened super-prison. En route they’ll be stopping at Carson Airport to pick up more.
Overseeing the whole transportation operation from the ground is US Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack), a man with a mind as taut as his 90s sand-coloured suit is baggy.
Himself described by colleague Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney) as an “annoying wise ass creep”, he helpfully goes through all the prisoners, listing their crimes, for the benefit of his colleagues and us, though I immediately forgot who was who. So many names, and nicknames in inverted commas, and so many horrible crimes from murder to rape to extortion. Quite often by the time I’d worked out who someone was, they were already dead.
A few stand out, particularly Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom (an extraordinarily, almost charmingly menacing John Malkovich), who has spent his time while incarcerated studying for two degrees, killing 11 inmates and escaping twice. Larkin describes him as “a poster child for the criminally insane”, a product of the USA’s justice system.
Johnny “Johnny 23” Baca (Danny Trejo) is a multiple rapist with a tattoo for every one of the 30+ victims he was jailed for, but not the ones he wasn’t. And Joe “Pinball” Parker (Dave Chappelle) who starts the initial riot on board, setting fire to an unsuspecting fellow inmate. (I don’t know if I can spoiler a 20 year old movie but poor Pinball’s end is literally a car crash, if not in the way you might think.)
Poe’s prison friend Mike “Baby-O” O’Dell (Mykelti Williamson) is also on board. He’s diabetic and needs his insulin, which is no one’s priority except Poe’s once the criminals take over the flight.
Naturally there is hubris on the part of law enforcement with Larkin saying absentmindedly “the only thing we’ve got to worry about is stale peanuts and a little turbulence” which is even less than I worry about when I get on a six hour flight and I’ve never even shoplifted (I do have small children though).
The prisoners’ plan is to take control of the plane and go ahead with the Carson handover, before taking off again, landing at Lerner Airport, transferring to another plane, and then heading to a country without an extradition agreement with the US.
Once they touch down in Carson, more prisoners come on board including Con Air’s own Hannibal Lecter – Garland Greene, who is brought out of the truck on a moving chair, his face taped up, then prodded onto the plane. Garland has killed at least 30 and “makes the Manson Family look like the Partridge Family”.
Their next landing is one of the worst ever, and the criminals have to work together to drag the plane out of the sand on ropes, like a prison version of the iconic barn-building scene in Witness.
Meanwhile Larkin is on their tail, and as divisions break out among the prisoners the death toll keeps rising. As usual, some die quickly and painfully, while others appear to be simply indestructible.
Cage’s Poe is at times fiercely driven by morality, at others entirely laconic, with some cracking lines delivered in that southern drawl: “Where do you think I’m going? I’m going to save the fuckin’ day”, he says to Larkin as events come to a head. And on seeing a sports car hanging under the plane in mid-air, points out almost to himself that “on any other day that might seem strange”.
Despite its 90s action movie date-stamp, Con Air doesn’t actually seem that dated, beyond Cusack’s super-baggy suit and Buscemi’s boyband haircut. The calibre of the cast ensures that. And many are phenomenal, providing icy precision and hot-headed stupidity to characters in a movie that could easily have been a B movie firefest.
Buscemi is oleaginously creepy as Garland Greene, a mass murderer who once wore his victim’s head as a hat while driving from state to state, his aforementioned boyband haircut giving him an air of youthful vulnerability which immediately evaporates when he looks at you. Cusack’s Larkin is nervy, wordy and clever, understanding that the only other intelligent people are on the plane.
There are few women. Monica Potter is sweet as Poe’s wife Tricia, ageing not a day in the eight years she brings up the world’s most well-behaved child. Guard Sally Bishop (Rachel Ticotin), the only female on board the plane, is tough but exceptionally vulnerable in what is essentially a flying bomb containing the worst criminals and a multiple rapist. The little girl in the trailer park, who holds a dolls’ tea party with Garland an uninvited guest, has a distracting if chilling role in a scene which felt rather exploitative.
The original premise – that Poe has to be jailed for so long after killing a man in self defence – doesn’t really make sense to me, despite the judge’s explanation that Poe’s military training makes him a weapon in his own right. But then I’m unfamiliar (luckily) with the American justice system.
And the film does go on a bit, though there are a lot of people who need to get their comeuppance; and to be fair director Simon West never relents on the action. There is hardly time to breathe, and the changing location from claustrophobic and functional prison plane to the dusty but just as inescapably isolated airfield really helps.
For me there are two great set pieces out of all that relentless action: the original plane riot when all hell breaks loose; and the “Landing Las Vegas” at the end as the plane, nearly as battered as its remaining occupants, competes with the city’s glitter and neon for best light show. And even then it’s not over.