April 10, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Con Air (1997)

by Nick Schager

Con Air

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Guy Pearce's prison-break heroics in Lockout.]

Nicolas Cage is a paternalistic white American god who unites the country's disparate cultural-political schisms while sporting oiled biceps, stringy long hair, a scruffy beard and an overcooked southern accent in Con Air. That may not be immediately apparent from Simon West's 1997 blockbuster, a spectacularly stupid piece of mayhem spawned by Michael Bay's The Rock, which had, a year earlier, legitimized both Bay's more-is-better ethos and Cage's tough-guy credentials. Yet a peek beneath the insane bombast of this "high-concept" work—which hews to the extreme template of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose name tellingly appears during the opening credits over the image of an explosion—reveals West's film as a comprehensive catalog of action movie attitudes and paradigms, summing up all the clichés, racism, sexism, jingoism and all-around absurdity that defines the big-budget, testosterone-spectacle genre. At the heart of this dunderheaded maelstrom is Cage's Cameron Poe, a former army ranger who, after returning to sweet home Alabama to reunite with his wife Tricia (Monica Potter), winds up killing a drunken lout in self-defense after the man harasses Tricia. For this accidental murder, he is sent to federal prison for seven-to-ten years because, as the judge hilariously intones, "With your military skills, you are a deadly weapon."

Con Air

Poe is thus, from the outset, a paragon of military honor sullied by a country governed by injustice, a scenario that he nonetheless takes in stride during the laughable subsequent credit sequence, which condenses Poe's big house stint to a montage of him working out in his cell, giving Hostess Sno Balls (received in Tricia care packages) to diabetic friend Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson), and writing and reading letters (in voiceover) from his daughter, who's born while he's locked away. "School is ver-ehy impo-tant," intones Poe in one of these correspondences, further establishing him as a symbol of responsible fatherhood, albeit one in a caricatured He-Man mold. A morally unimpeachable wronged man, Poe is released on July 14th (the same day as his daughter's birthday!), but his trip home fatefully turns out to be aboard The Jailbird, a giant high-tech prisoner-transport plane that's also moving inmates to a new SuperMax facility. These are not just any old criminals, but the worst of the worst, all of whom are introduced as nicknamed monsters by U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) as they exit a bus and walk through a line of officers to the aircraft in a scene that solidifies the material's WWE-ish conception of good and bad.

These villains are led by Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich), whose domineering, anything-goes leadership over a gaggle of multicultural cretins—Ving Rhames' brutal Diamond Dog, Dave Chappelle's junkie comedic-relief Pinball, M.C. Gainey's redneck pilot Swamp Thing, and Danny Trejo's rapist Johnny-23—makes him the malevolent father-figure flipside to Poe. Malkovich chews his eloquently evil dialogue with relish, yet Cyrus is a somewhat bland adversary most interesting for the way in which his power over his criminal charges involves racist barbs and a severe lack of patience or compassion. Such qualities are diametrically opposed to those of Poe, who, after Cyrus takes control of the plane, rejects a chance to escape the craft because—as a ranger duty-bound to never leave any man behind—he feels obligated to protect both Baby-O, who's in desperate need of an insulin shot (the needles are all broken!), and prison guard Sally (Rachel Ticotin), whom Johnny-23 wants to assault. If Con Air's disparate characters can agree on one thing, it's that rape is wicked, a position that's honorable but baffling in light of the film's otherwise gleeful depiction of cold-blooded serial-killer madness, here epitomized by Steve Buscemi's Garland (aka "The Marietta Mangler"), a schoolboy-looking psycho first spied in Hannibal Lecter-esque manacles whom West takes great pains to elevate into a likable fiend.

Con Air

When, during one of the Jailbird's many pit stops, Garland finds a young, pigtailed trailer-park girl all alone and sits down with her to play "tea party" and sing "He's got the whole world in his hands," Con Air reaches a level of stunningly tasteless horror-exploitation titillation, and one made more unpleasant by its phoniness, as a follow-up shot of a broken cup sitting on top of the girl's now-abandoned table teases about pedophilic sins that the film later confirms did not take place. Still, the story's lewd fondness for Garland—who it softens via making clear that he didn't defile his potential adolescent victim—is undeniable, and speaks to a misguided post-Silence of the Lambs cinematic trend of turning "colorful" madmen into characters for whom we can root. That modus operandi is also part and parcel of a general Bruckheimer philosophy, which positions everyone as a larger-than-life stereotype, many of which skew anti-Latino, from rapist Johnny-23, the universally frowned-upon scoundrel, and gay Ramon (Renoly Santiago), who's mocked as a "sister" by Dog, to drug lord Cindino (Jesse Borrego), who proves a sniveling self-interested back-stabber.

But back to Poe, the Uncle Sam Jesus Superman of Con Air, who takes it upon himself to not only thwart Cyrus, but to also defend infirm black Baby-O (his name indicative of his infantile nature) and helpless Hispanic Sally. Dying in Poe's arms, Baby-O says, "I got a bad feeling, son. A feeling like maybe I'm not supposed to make it" and then admits that he fears God doesn't exist, to which Poe—angered by the unfairness of it all—responds "I'm gonna show you God does exist," and then does so by slapping gay Ramon and taking control of the plane with Herculean might and ease. Able to repeatedly convince Cyrus to avoid violence (by posing as Cyrus' rational comrade), and determined to make it home to his daughter with a stuffed-bunny present in tow, Poe is an icon of white American male virility, cunning and power. And he's the one tasked, ultimately, with healing the Republican-Democrat, North-South schisms embodied by Cusack's intellectual Larkin, who suggests that the plane shouldn't be blasted out of the sky because Poe is a good guy on board and because inmates are victims of a lousy penal system, and Colm Meaney's Malloy, a shoot-first DEA blowhard who argues that Cyrus and company are animals who should be blown to smithereens because they lost the right to live "when they stopped giving a damn about the law, about civilization."

Con Air

Larkin is a college-educated, rational-hippie liberal, Malloy is a bloodthirsty my-way-or-the-highway conservative, and Poe is the bridge between them, a canny southern gentleman who cornily refers to his wife as "hummingbird" but also has no qualms about snapping limbs when the situation demands it. Poe exemplifies the best qualities of both cultural-political factions, and in doing so—and thwarting Cyrus' plans—he brings Larkin and Malloy together. He also, it turns out, is the first step toward Cage's devolution into abject cartoonishness. The actor's look and accent are ludicrous enough, but Cage's turn is most notable for its embrace of outsized reactions and gestures, none better than two separate instances—one in response to Cyrus commandeering the plane, and the other after he fails to save an undercover DEA agent from getting himself killed during a pistol stand-off—in which he expresses, respectively, you-have-to-be-kidding-me exasperation and I-told-you-so pity via closing his eyes and curtly shaking his head in dismay. It's an astounding performance of Schwarzenegger-ian machismo, one that avoids realism like the plague and, in the process, provides a foundation of cheesy silliness to the ultra-violent action.

That comingling of the grim and goofy is also, ultimately, fostered by West's direction, which apes Michael Bay-isms with a gusto that would seem downright plagiaristic were that tack not clearly on producer Bruckheimer's orders to deliver The Rock-times-twenty. There are three key elements to West's aesthetic—Fireballs! Slow Motion! Squealing Guitars!—and he returns to them so frequently and enthusiastically that, by the midway point, they calcify into inadvertent jokes, with every second- and third-act wail from an electric axe and orgy of pyrotechnic flamboyance eliciting uncontrollable laughter. Dialing every moment up to 11, West's style is a lewd and hyperactive exaggeration of an exaggeration, and as such, Con Air winds up functioning as a crazed crystallization of the genre's myriad and often muddled viewpoints and excesses. Saving minorities, stopping bad guys, and bringing that stuffed bunny to baby, all so we can hear the post-climax triumphant twang of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama"—Poe is a Loony Tunes vision of a real American hero, and Con Air, a preeminently big, dumb vehicle of action-cinema juvenilia, narrow-mindedness and rah-rah ridiculousness.

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Posted by ahillis at April 10, 2012 1:18 PM