Monday, August 3, 2009


Summer action movies for adult males celebrate those macho virtues that red-blooded, he-men cherish. British director Simon West’s “Con-Air” (*** out of ****), teaming Nicolas Cage with John Cusack, sizzles as a high flying take-off on all those vintage “Airport” movies, but the passengers here are convicts who skyjack their transport for a rendezvous in the desert with Colombian drug smugglers. At the heart of this superficial but stimulating action movie lies a less than subtle Hollywood commentary on what a macho man must do to conform to society.

In “Con-Air,” Cage plays Cameron Poe, a former U.S. Army Ranger who pulls a stretch in prison for killing a knife-wielding drunkard in a brawl over his wife. Before Poe can recover, the villain’s pals scoop up the knife, scram, and leave our hero to take the rap. Because Poe’s Ranger training qualifies him as a lethal weapon, the court sentences him to eight years in a federal lock-up. While he is incarnated, Poe’s pretty young wife Tricia (Monica Potter) has given birth to an adorable baby girl. In the second quarter-hour of “Con-Air,” Poe and his cut little daughter exchange amusing letters. During this interval, Poe matures enough so that his exemplary behavior wins him a parole.

A short plane ride is the last obstacle between Poe and his freedom. Prison officials pile him onto a cargo plane with an all-star line-up of psychopathic murderers, among them Cyrus ‘the Virus’ Grissom (John Malkovich of “Dangerous Liaisons”) and Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames of “Pulp Fiction”), a vicious black militant. A clean-cut, sandal-shod U.S. Marshal named Vince Larkin (John Cusack of “Grosse Point Blank”) officiates the transfer. The plot thickens when abrasive D.E.A. agent Duncan Molloy (Colm Meaney of “TV’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) wins permission to smuggle a trigger-happy undercover agent on board to cajole information out of a Colombian drug lord’s son. Once they’re airborne, the convicts stage an ingenious jail break; ice the D.E.A. agent, and commander the plane. Sally Bishop (Rachel Ticotin of “Total Recall”), then acts as an insider for Larkin. Meanwhile, Larkin clashes with Molloy who aims to avenge his dead agent by blowing the plane to smithereens!

“Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” scenarist Scott Rosenberg has contrived this hard-fisted hokum that excites and entertains even though it is hopeless predictable from fade-in to fade-out. “Con-Air” spends most of its two-hour running time in the air instead of behind bars. The early prison scenes establish Poe’s friendship with a diabetic black prisoner named Mike Baby-O’ O’Dell (Mykelti Williamson of “Waiting to Exhale”). The filmmakers have carefully balanced good African-Americans with bad African-Americans so as to avoid charges of racism. Rosenberg has penned some catchy dialogue that serves the dual purpose of foreshadowing the action and sounding quite quotable. Nothing happens in “Con-Air” that is not set up far in advance, so the movie never pulls any unfair tricks on its audience. Moreover, the characters spout dialogue about their predicaments that never leave any doubt for the audience about the destination of the action.

Freshman director Simon West and Rosenberg endow Poe with such heroic qualities that it is difficult to believe that any court could have sent a man of his caliber up the river. After all, he is a Gulf War veteran who has just come home to his gorgeous young wife pregnant with a baby girl. Furthermore, the filmmakers hammer home Poe’s Ranger’s credo: no matter what the dangers, U.S. Rangers never abandon their comrades. When Poe has a chance to leave the plane, he sticks around instead to save the day. What “Con-Air” lacks in credibility, it compensates for with its diversity of colorful characters and its pyrotechnics.

Wearing scruffy shoulder length hair and flexing sculpted biceps, Nicolas Cage resembles Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” as he thwarts his opponents. Cage’s syrupy Alabama accent gets a little thick on occasion, but he registers as a respectable enough hero. John Cusack excels in his first dramatic action role. Before “Con-Air” crashes to a halt, Cusack’s U.S. Marshal Larkin has been scorched, slugged unconscious, and nearly killed. As a sneering, egotistical D.E.A. agent, Colm Meaney is so convincing that you want to shoot him yourself.

The filmmakers have assembled some really grisly looking actors as the convicts. These bad guys emerge as a truly venomous bunch that richly deserve their inevitable comeuppance. John Malkovich impersonates a character here who is just as despicable and cunning as the assassin that he played in the Clint Eastwood thriller “In the Line of Fire.” Malkovich’s predatory, bald villain boasts that he has slain more men than cancer. As his henchman, Ving Rhames is equally as nefarious. Danny Trejo of “Desperado” fame creates a chilling portrait of lust run amok as a rapist named Johnny 23 with twenty-three hearts tattooed on his beefy forearm to represent his unfortunate rape victims.

West keeps the action stirred up to such a whirlwind pace that its far-fetched elements don’t detract from the excitement. “Con-Air” is West’s big-screen movie debut and he displays a lot of promise as an action director. His action scenes ripple with adrenaline, especially the plane hijacking, an ambush in a derelict airplane scrap heap, and a rousing finale in Las Vegas. The explosive music of Mark Mancina and former “Yes” musician Trevor Rabin considerably enhances each of these slam-bang scenes. “Yes” rock music fans will recognize those distinctive, throbbing Rabin chords that punctuate the action.

Nobody should imitate “Con-Air” or take its woefully exaggerated carnival of snap, crackle, pop violence seriously. Characters get shot, stabled, and dismembered beyond anything an ordinary individual cold take, but then this clever, slickly-packaged fantasy pokes as much fun at itself as at its audiences. One amusing scene involves the destruction of a classic sports car. Another features Cage battling with another convict because he refuses to head Poe’s warning to “leave the bunny alone.’

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