Flight of the Fallen
Nicolas Cage has one of the stranger careers in modern Hollywood. Somehow striding the lines between award winning actor, character performer, and A-list star, Cage has gone through many different phases of his career, seemingly following whatever wind blows him to a part that tickles his fancy. It's like once he proved he could be more than a character actor, winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in Leaving Las Vegas, he then didn't want to build a "normal" career. Instead he's gone everywhere, done just about anything he wanted, all for a lark. It's turned out some amazing films (for a certain definition of amazing), but it's also made his career this weird, knowing joke on itself.
1997's Con Air came right in the middle of a streak of A-list performances that made Cage a hot commodity in Hollywood. These films -- The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off, and then City of Angels -- contributed to a total $1 Bil at th Box Office in a three year span. Any actor would be proud to have that on their resume, and certainly Cage was happy to be in all those films. But you can also tell the movies he enjoyed the most, the ones where he got to be the most "Nicky Cage" he could. One of those is Con Air, a deeply silly movie that became a mega-hit in spite of (or maybe because of) the terrible accent Cage affects throughout.
The film is focused on Cage's Cameron Poe, a former Army Ranger who had just gotten out of the military to see his wife, Tricia (Monica Potter). However, some jerks accost the two of them at a bar, leading Cameron to get in a fight with the guys (while his wife runs off to get help). One of the guys pulls a knife, Cameron kills him in self-defense, and then the buddies run off, taking the knife with them. All anyone else sees is Cameron over a dead body without the needed provocation. As such, Cameron ends up in Prison for 7 to 10, all while his wife is on the outside waiting for him with (soon enough) their newly born baby girl.
Seven years go by and Cameron gets released for good behavior. To get home quick, he takes a ride on "Con Air", the Justice Department program, overseen by John Cusack as Vince Larkin (U.S. Marshal), that flies convicts from prison to prison. On the plane with Cameron is his prison buddy Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson), along with a murderers row of, well, murderers: John Malkovich as Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom, Ving Rhames as Nathan "Diamond Dog" Jones, M. C. Gainey as Earl "Swamp Thing" Williams, Danny Trejo as John "Johnny 23" Baca, Dave Chappelle as Joe "Pinball" Parker, and Steve Buscemi as Garland "The Marietta Mangler" Greene, among many others. Unfortunately or the flight, the murderers quickly get control of the plane. This forces Cameron to fight for his life, and the lives of the guards and his friends, all while attempting anything he can to get a message to the Marshals so they can take down the plane.
Frankly, Con Air is just such a weird movie that even Nick Cage's inclusion doesn't change that fact. This is a film that easily could have been developed as a drama. Evil prisoners take over a plane and, with a man on the outside and one on the inside, somehow the criminals have to be talked down, or taken out, to save the lives of everyone else on the plane. That sounds like a prestige drama, not a high-flying snarky action film. And yet, the snarky action film is exactly what we got.
In fairness, the mid 1990s were packed with snarky action films. Although he didn't create the genre, Michael Bay certainly influenced Hollywood on just what kinds of big, bombastic action movies would put asses in seats. And it's no mistake that one of Bay's biggest films, The Rock, featured Nick Cage in its lead role. Hollywood sat up and took notice and decided, "action plus explosions plus Nick Cage equals Box Office Gold." And they weren't wrong as this film cranked out a quite tidy $224 Mil against a $75 Mil budget, a return on investment any studio would have been happy about back then.
And yet, the film does feel like it's straining, fighting the movie it's become to go back to the dramatic actioner you can see sitting somewhere in its core. Con Air could have been a serious film and, I think, it might have worked. But by layering on the humor, the kooky characters, and the over-the-top action, the film went in a different direction. It's a direction that works, mind you, but at a campy and silly level. This is not prestige cinema, this is turn your brain off and sit back as the stupidity washed over you popcorn. It's delightful but you have to be in the mood for it.
To start, Cage absolutely doesn't take the film seriously at all. He doesn't phone the role in but he's absolutely in "I won an Academy Award and this film is beneath me" mode. To keep himself engaged he affects the worst Souther drawl I've ever heard in a film. It's not just bad as an accent, it's bad in context as no other character, not even Cameron's wife, has that accent. It's like Cage came on set said, "I'm delivering all my lines this way," in a fit of Orson Wells self-destruction, and the director was like, "cool, bro, do it." It makes his character into a cartoon, able to match all the other cartoony villains on the film, so it does work in that respect. But it's also glaringly bad.
Thankfully he does have a series of cartoonish villains to battle against. John Malkovich is the primary antagonist, chewing all the scenery in sight every way he can. He's a solid, serious actor in his own right, but it also feels like he saw what Cage was doing and said, "I have got to step up my game." With Cage and Malkovich trying to out do each other, the tone of the film was irrevocably changed. Thus, Rhames Diamond Dog, Chappelle's Pinball, Gainey's Swamp Thing, and so many other characters go so broad that it becomes silly. This is supposed to be a big, bombastic action piece with real stakes but the stakes never really set in because this film feels like a live action cartoon. Watchable, but very silly.
Although, in fairness, the action was never really going to "hit", not with a third-rate director at the helm. Simon West is not a good director, not when it comes to action. We've seen his handiwork before, over in Wild Card, and he brought the same lackluster action direction to Con Air as well. Everything is too choppy, filmed too close, over produced with a heavy hand, that it's hard to watch the action and really get a sense of what's going on. Michael Bay level direction this is not, despite the Bay level bombast. This film wants to be The Rock, lines up all the pieces for it, but West fails to deliver on the action side of things.
That doesn't make the film bad, necessarily, you just don't tune in for the action. Not really. This is a film driven by it's performances (with a scene-stealing performance by Steve Buscemi that i didn't even have room in the flow of this review to talk about). and the silly one-liners. Con Air delivers on the comedy, and it has enough okay-ish action to carry itself. It's not high art, not even in the action genre, but it is fun popcorn and that is enough. That does keep it from being an out-and-out success, but considering it Touchstone Pictures a tidy sum, I doubt any of the studio heads were complaining at the time.