22 May 2001 | MadReviewer
A Good Movie That Got Bogged Down With Greed
`Con Air' more or less defines the term `popcorn movie' it's an action film designed strictly to entertain. The film's emphasis is on flash, flair, and adrenaline, with a smattering of humor and story spread throughout for good measure. Not exactly the most lofty of goals, but the desire to entertain is quite sincere, and `Con Air' does largely succeed in the entertainment department.
Where `Con Air' falls apart, however, is the grandiose, grandstanding way in which it tells its story. Subtlety is a word that is impossible to use in describing this film. `Con Air' is a firm believer in the concept that more must be better ten explosions must be better than one; three psychotic villains must be better than two; and so on. The `bigger is better' approach never truly turns the film into an utter mess, but it does bog it down to a certain extent what could've been a fantastic action movie becomes, well, just better than average. A leaner and meaner `Con Air' could've been a classic.
`Con Air' is the story of good-guy Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), an Army Ranger unjustly tossed in prison for eight long years for protecting his family from a drunken, knife-wielding maniac. Finally paroled, Poe is placed on a converted troop transport plane that will take him home to his family. However, also on board the plane is a roster of psychotic criminals vaguely reminiscent of the Legion of Doom from the old `Superfriends' cartoon. There's Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich), an articulate, thoughtful madman with a penchant for automatic weapons; Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames), a black militant and Cyrus' trusted lieutenant (or so Cyrus thinks, at any rate); Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo), a serial rapist; Garland Greene (Steve Buscemi), a serial killer in the Hannibal Lecter vein who is treated as the resident prison celebrity; and a good half-dozen other colorful characters to flesh out this flying rogues' gallery of nightmare criminals. Under Cyrus' direction, the criminals take control of the plane, and it's up to the beleaguered Poe to save the day, with some help from good-guy U.S. Marshal Larkin (John Cusack) on the ground, who's seemingly the only person in U.S. law enforcement capable of deciphering Poe's brief and cryptic messages to the authorities.
The film moves along at a brisk pace, cheerfully glossing over its own improbabilities. `Con Air' is definitely the kind of film that only works if you don't stop to think about it, and director Simon West keeps things going quick enough to keep most of the ludicrous plot holes mercifully brief. He manages to cut from one story arc to another with a certain amount of skill, keeping each arc from completely snowballing into something unmanageable. However, the juggling act wears thin by the end of the movie there's simply too much to try to balance. It's not particularly Simon West's fault (although he does have an annoying penchant for overusing the slow-motion explosion filmed from five different angles, a lá `The A-Team'), but more a by-product of the script. The second half of the film has forced moments, where the only purpose of the action scenes seems to be to completely outdo the action scenes in the first half. These scenes are undeniably cool looking, but they're filler, and filler can only take a movie so far. A good third of the film story, action scenes, you name it could've easily been excised from the film, and not only would it never be missed, `Con Air' would actually be vastly improved.
Even the characters, while entertaining, wind up just overwhelming the film. The villain Diamond Dog, as played by Ving Rhames, is charismatic, menacing, and a truly inspired movie bad guy . . . and he's also completely gratuitous. As Cyrus the Virus, John Malkovich is also charismatic, menacing, and a truly inspired movie bad guy . . . just like Diamond Dog. The movie simply doesn't have room for both villains (and it definitely doesn't have room for the Lecter-inspired Garland Green, who Steve Buscemi turns into an odd sort of comic relief, but otherwise serves no purpose in the film.) ONE villain would've been plenty. Ditto the heroes: Cage is good, Cusack is good, but c'mon, pick ONE. Like the rest of the film, the characters become too much, and wind up becoming pure overkill.
In many ways, `Con Air' looks like the results of a Hollywood brainstorming meeting gone haywire, where a thousand ideas are slapped down onto a notepad. . . but these ideas don't necessarily mesh well together. Most of the ideas in `Con Air' are surprisingly decent, there's just too many of them. (How many times have you heard that about an action movie?)
Overall, `Con Air' is okay, and if you're in the mood for fun, mindless action, it gets the job done. Personally, I'd recommend watching `The Rock' instead it's by far the best of the recent spate of Bruckheimer action flicks but `Con Air', for all its excesses, has its own good moments, too. Grade: B-