A dirty dozen wad of cons hijack a prison transport plane in “Con Air,” a high-flying actioner fueled by equal parts schmaltz and high explosives that is likely to pack high-altitude grosses among younger viewers and action fans.
Starring Nicolas Cage and John Malkovich as the respective white hat and black hat, “Con Air” carries a first-class load of hardened con players - Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, M.C. Gainey, Danny Trejo - that would give the guests at Marion the heebie-jeebies.
The main con here is not Hannibal the Cannibal, but rather Cyrus the Virus (Malkovich), a cerebral slime who has masterminded an escape plan to take place during a transport of the country’s most vile criminals to a new superprison.
The plane itself is a virtual flying prison, with all the amenities one would expect for its last-class passengers. In addition, to the sadistic Cyrus, prisoners include a serial killer (Steve Buscemi), a multiple rapist (Danny Trejo), a black militant (Ving Rhames), a crackhead (Renoly), a berserko killer (Nick Chinlund), as well as some other dudes who, rap sheets aside, are just plain mean and ugly.
And there’s one ringer in the deck, a sweet-natured parolee, Cameron (Cage) who has served seven years on a bum rap, and who’s en route to reunite with his wife and child (Monica Potter, Landry Allbright).
The takeover is swift, sadistic and successful as Cyrus and his group of crazy cons commandeer the plane to a secret destination where they’ll be whisked away to the sandy beaches of nonjurisdictional waters. Their daring has essentially flummoxed the flatfoots on the ground who don’t even have a contingency plan for such an event - so unlikely is its occurrence.
Only Cameron stands between them and umbrella drinks: Does the young husband risk his life to serve a system that has screwed him or does he just settle in for the ride? Hint: “Die Hard” in the sky.
Packed high with explosive action and loaded with high-stakes jeopardy, “Con Air” charts a generally sound narrative course, although it hits some story turbulence before it hits its climactic jackpot. Despite a descent into generic action pyrotechnics, Scott Rosenberg’s screenplay is juiced with dry, witty dialogue and recharged with some preposterously apt comedy.
Director Simon West keeps things on course and aloft with a tight, in-your-face style that rarely loosens its grip; at times, however, the percussively charged story loses wallop in technical overkill - the fiery explosions are piled too high, and the music, or so the bombastic thundering is called, is a deadening overkill.
It’s the well-chosen cast, however, that make this thing fly. As the parolee who risks his life to thwart the cons, Cage exudes bravery of the decent Everyman who rises to the occasion. With his flowing locks, scrabby beard and beatific gaze, Cage exudes a Jesus-on-the-cross sacrificial persona, albeit a Christ who pumped iron.
Oozing bile, Malkovich is highly menacing as the sociopathic sadist Cyrus, while Rhames is chilling as a murderous militant. As an intelligent serial killer, Buscemi’s buggy performance is easily the film’s eeriest - Bundy, Gacey and Dahmer rolled into one.
On the ground, John Cusack is well-cast as a brainy U.S. marshal and Colm Meaney is entertaining as a loathsome good guy.
Mileage plus awards to cast members Mykelti Williamson as Cameron’s diabetic cellmate and Rachel Ticotin as a guard.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Con Air” Locations: Lincoln Heights, Lyons, Coeur d’Alene Credits: Director: Simon West, starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Nick Chinlund, Rachel Ticotin, Colm Meaney, M.C. Gainey, Ving Rhames, Mykelti Williamson, Danny Trejo, Renoly, Monica Potter, Landry Allbright. Running time: 1:50 Rating: R