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'Air': Fly the Frenzied Skies

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 6, 1997

"Con Air," a summer blast of a movie, teaches us many things:

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer never met an explosion, a car crash or 20 tough guys talking trash he didn’t like.

Nicolas Cage is one of our most enjoyable screen heroes.

As long as you’re funny, you can literally get away with murder in a movie.

One dark and traumatic night, U.S. Ranger Cameron Poe (Cage) and his beautiful, pregnant wife, Tricia (Monica Potter) face three thugs from Central Casting who intend to beat Cameron and rape his wife.

When Cameron kills one of them, he’s sent to the slammer for 7 to 10 years. But he takes his time like a man, writing letters to his wife and daughter, Casey (Landry Allbright), growing his hair and dreaming of family life and freedom.

Finally, the day comes when Cameron is to be paroled. He gets into a prisoner-transport plane, carrying his precious letters and a bunny he intends to give his girl on her 8th birthday (of course, it happens to be this special day).

Little does Cameron know his life is about to be usurped by a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. The plane (dubbed Con Air) is full of the most ornery criminals in the U.S., such as savage mastermind Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich); ex-Black Panther terrorist Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames), who kills political enemies without compunction; and all manner of evil, criminally insane and tattooed people sporting names like Billy Bedlam, Swamp Thing and Johnny-23 (the latter moniker refers to the con’s rape tally). The plane’s most special guest is Garland Greene (Steve Buscemi), a soft-spoken serial killer who has to be transported in Hannibal Lecter-style harnesses.

Unbeknownst to the authorities, these Bad Boys intend to hijack the plane and make their escape to -- well, I was never quite sure. When the in-flight security is overpowered, Cameron groans inwardly. Who has time for testosteronal heroics when you’ve got a birthday party to make? Accepting his heroic destiny like the Ranger he is, Cameron pretends to be one of the Wild Bunch so he can eventually outwit them, maintain secret contact with U.S. Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack) and still help little Casey blow out her candles.

Of course, no one is supposed to really buy this Con job -- just enjoy the detonations, edgily comic situations and a finale that involves a crash-landing down the main drag in Las Vegas. Amid the pyrotechnics, there is a tacit comfort barrier for the audience. We know that -- in real-life -- Malkovich and Buscemi couldn’t scare Pee-wee Herman. And when Buscemi’s child-killing character comes face to face with a vulnerable, little girl (an obvious reference to "Frankenstein"), we’re not too worried about the outcome.

What sets this movie slightly apart from the average blitzkrieg popcorn fest is the adroit self-parody -- much of which can be traced to screenwriter Scott Rosenberg. Of course, good one-liners need good deliverers, and Cage, Malkovich, Cusack and Buscemi are more than up to the task. When Billy Bedlam (Nick Chinlund), who’s trying to get the straight dope on Cameron, pokes through his belongings, he uncovers that precious bunny. "Put the bunny back in the box," says a seething Cameron. Later on this nutty flight, when a loose cable hanging from the plane snags on a sports car and hoists it into the air, Cameron watches the spectacle with a deadpan expression. "On any other day," he mutters, "that might seem strange." In this movie, the statement has an almost sublime ring to it.

CON AIR (R) — Contains violence, profanity and scenes of major mayhem.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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