Logan’s Moving Pictures is back talking about the one, the only, the massive talent (and the unbearable weight of said massive talent on his shoulders) Nicolas Cage and the apex of his career; Con Air!
On April 24th of 2022, I sat down in a theatre and watched what should have been Nicolas Cage’s grand return to the world of blockbuster cinema. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is both a fun and funny look at filmmaking and the cult of celebrity, while being a witty retrospective on the career of possibly the most interesting actor of his (or maybe any) generation. Sadly it underperformed, despite excellent reviews and some really great marketing. But, in this post-covid world, it really does take more than Nic Cage having a good time to get people in the seats. I won’t go into much detail about it, but I will spoil the fact that the movie opens in the best possible way, with a character watching the ending to a film that’s been on my mind a lot as of late, Con Air. Fortunately, Ryan had a VHS copy lingering about, and even more fortunate, it’s streaming free with Amazon Prime!
After walking out of that screening all I wanted to do was sit down and revisit the movie I’d watched in a theatre more than any other. To see Cage in his full mulleted glory. To hear THE worst southern accent ever put to screen. To see the directorial debut of the man who originally Rick Rolled us with his Never Gonna Give You Up video, Simon West. To watch, as the movie itself so eloquently puts it, a bunch of idiots dancing around on a plane to a song made famous by a band that died in a plane crash.
Con Air came out in June of 1997, which makes this the 25th anniversary, and I honestly can’t believe it’s been that long. Cage was coming fresh off his first big action hero turn in The Rock not a year earlier and would cap the month off with his third straight blockbuster in that genre, Face/Off. And as uneven as all three of those movies can be, I’d honestly stack them up against any three consecutive films from Hollywood’s more traditional action stars. Even if those other movies were more consistent, folks like Arnold, Bruce, Sly, Mel Gibson…even the old schoolers like Chuck Norris and the relatively new kids on the block like THE Rock and Vin Diesel, they’re all playing variations of the same character. Cage is doing something different every time, and I can’t help but want to show up for it. And boy did I ever in 1997.
I saw Con Air in the theatre no less than 17 times.
Now, there’s a caveat to that; I didn’t pay for a ticket every time. When it premiered, yes, at least once, probably two or three times, dragging new folks along each time. But, by late summer/early fall, it was in rotation at our local discount theatre, so if I did pay, it wasn’t much. Back then I believe it was either a buck or a buck fifty to get in to see whatever’d lost its luster at the shiny first-run multiplex. I’d only recently graduated high school, and having decided not to go to college, had plenty of free time. So I saw everything I could, and then I’d go watch Con Air again.
I was rooming with one of my oldest friends, someone I’m still close with to this day; we didn’t have cable, and the internet was barely a thing back then, so we spent a lot of nights hanging out at that place. He was usually on a date and I was just playing third wheel, because, again, literally no life. We also knew the manager, which I believe I’ve talked about before, so provided we paid to get in the door we could usually stay as long as we wanted. Any time he was going to dinner before or after, I’d just get dropped off or stay later and watch whatever I could, and for a good two months that meant seeing all or part of Con Air.
I don’t know why I was so fascinated with the film. Certainly, it’s entertaining; full of action set pieces and comedic bits that, as dark as they are, still play today (Dave Chappelle apparently improvised most of his dialogue, and I’d bet Malkovich touched up his own). But there’s nothing really mind-blowing about it. In truth, the plot makes very little sense, and even though the characters do act within their own well-defined parameters, there just isn’t much to the boxes the filmmakers built for them. Still, I couldn’t get enough.
I wish I could say how many times Ryan would tag along, or just pick me up (I didn’t have a car) and we’d do a double feature, but sadly that’s just lost to me. I don’t even really have a vivid memory of watching this one with him, but I know we talked about it, not just in 1997 but regularly. He was such a huge fan of so many of the actors involved, the least of which was probably Cage himself.
In a text exchange with Adam (ye-olde-EiC at the site here) I said something along the lines of how this isn’t a movie that would probably get made today, not with this level of casting. Not only do you have Nic Cage, but you have my brother’s perennial man-crush John Cusack, and then there’s John Malkovich and Ving Rhames, both actors he’d come to appreciate a few years earlier as the baddie from In the Line of Fire and the kingpin Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction respectively. You’ve also got Colm Meany, who (oddly enough) Ryan loved from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a show he tried endlessly to get me to watch when it was on, there’s Dave Chappelle, who he had a…let’s call it ‘budding’ appreciation for at the time due to his stoner comedies, Danny Trejo, who had become a favorite because of his work with Robert Rodriguez, and Steve Buscemi…because he’s Steve Buscemi. If there was ever a big, dumb action film made specifically for my brother, it was Con Air. The only person missing was either Meg Ryan or Milla Jovovich…and weirdly enough Monica Potter is kind of like the perfect blend of the two actresses.
So, we both watched Con Air a good many times, both on the big screen and on our TV’s. For a while, it was one of those movies that you just didn’t turn away from when you came across it. No matter where they were in the story, you’d watch it until the end, or at least until something or someone pulled you away from it. We’d quote it endlessly, turning our already trailer-park accents into something that was even far worse than Cage’s. Watching along all these years later I found myself surprised that I remembered so much of the dialogue. “My momma lives in a trailer park,” being maybe my favorite delivery in the whole thing…except there’s also Malkovich’s Cyrus reading that letter in the voice of a little girl…
Not too long ago I talked about how My Cousin Vinny is sneakily one of the best court procedurals ever made, and while Con Air only features one scene set in a court (and a very shoddily made one at that), it does some sneaky teaching of its own. Underneath the crazy action set pieces, bad accents, one-liners, and explosions the film actually has a lot to say about our legal system and prison itself.
From the moment Poe’s lawyer urges him to take a plea deal that nets him as much time as if he’d just went to trial and lost, the court and prison system is shown to systemically and systematically fail the people it’s supposed to both protect and rehabilitate. We see Baby O nearly die because he wasn’t given his needed insulin shot before the plane takes off. We get Larkin quoting Dostoevsky on judging society by its treatment of its prisoners.. We have them loading the most dangerous people in the country all into one place with the basest of restraints and guards who look like they haven’t had a day off in six years. We have an idiot agent bringing a gun onto the plane!
Yes, it all plays out in the craziest and most fantastical of ways, and no, scenarios exactly like this do not really happen, but in the last few years we’ve seen more and more of the cracks in all areas of our justice system. From the lawmakers to the police, to lawyers, to judges, to the prisons we send the convicted to. It’s frightening how inept it can all be, and all too often it is.
We are all intrinsically drawn to stories of people trying to do the right thing in bad situations. Most of the best action films feature that basic plotline, and for good reason; it’s what we all hope we’d be able to do, both physically, mentally and spiritually. In a perfect world, none of us would wind up in the shoes of the hero here. A Ranger who found himself behind bars for defending his wife’s honor, forced to face down the worst of the worst to get home to see his family after years behind bars. But the truth is that those situations do happen in the world we live in, but the people that come out the other side are rarely still filled with the hope and determination of Cameron Poe.
Good God, what a name.