DVD - Image A- Sound A-
BD - Image C+ Sound A- Extras D+
starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi
screenplay by Scott Rosenberg
directed by Simon West
by Alex Jackson The plot is simplicity itself: Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) has just completed his training as an Army Ranger; he goes to a local bar to celebrate with his pregnant wife (Monica Potter), gets assaulted by some thugs, kills one in the ensuing fight, and is convicted of manslaughter. Eight years later, his sentence is up and he hitches a prison flight that happens to be transferring a number of the country's most dangerous and renowned criminals, including Cyrus "the Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich), a brilliant psychopath who murders people just because he can; Nathan "Diamond Dog" Jones (Ving Rhames), a black militant who wrote a book in prison that is now being made into a feature film with Denzel in talks for the lead; William "Billy Bedlam" Bedford (Nick Chinlund), who slayed his wife's parents, brothers, and dog when he discovered the missus in bed with another man; and Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo), a serial rapist with 23 heart tattoos on his arm. ("One for each of my bitches," he explains.) Cyrus leads a revolt on the plane, killing or capturing all of the guards and hijacking the flight. But like Alan Rickman in Die Hard, Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege, or Powers Boothe in Sudden Death, he has no idea that one of the hostages he's holding is a classically-trained ass-kicker!
Con Air is dumb--exhilaratingly so. You should be careful about operating heavy machinery afterwards: if you're anything like me, you may be rather light-headed from laughing so hard. Either shortly before or shortly after it opened in theatres I attended a sneak preview of the solid but justifiably forgotten underdog/kitchen-sink-realist melodrama Brassed Off. The local film critic hosting the screening told us it was worth something like "ten Con Airs"s. He couldn't have picked a better movie to single out: Con Air actually seems designed as a lowbrow raspberry to the middlebrow establishment. You see, it's not only dumb, it's proud of it--proud in the same way you could be proud to be Irish or queer. It's as though being really fucking dumb is part of its cultural identity.
Before watching the film for what was probably the fifth time, I was fully prepared to denounce anyone who would dare dismiss Con Air as not only elitist but actively classist, too. It's a perennial issue, I know: are film critics out of touch with mainstream America? And if so, what does that say about their function in society? If there were a nuclear holocaust, would we save them a place in the fallout shelter or are they of a leisure class existing to praise films that only they are capable of understanding? Personally, I resolve the issue by seeing film criticism as an art and, like art, it is or should be hyper-personal, self-indulgent, and essentially masturbatory. As far as social-functioning goes, art and criticism are indeed luxuries and not necessities. Which ultimately means, I guess, that it is sort of stupid to call Con Air's detractors elitist or classist. These people aren't really arbitrators of taste, they're simply regular folks with a vehicle of decimation offering up their opinion.
Well, maybe the elitist charge is only sort of stupid a good four-fifths of the time. I think the charge that Con Air is junk fails to acknowledge that it is indeed very witty about being dumb. Make no mistake: it's by and for people who like Jerry Bruckheimer films and it never really feels like self-parody. But within the context of a big, dumb Bruckheimer production, it's smart and funny, which is of course precisely why the critics didn't get it. You need to be on the same wavelength as Con Air. One of the film's best gags is how John Cusack's nerdy U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin narrowly dodges one giant explosion after another. Seeing shit blow up real good while a major character narrowly escapes produces a primitive yet genuine adrenaline rush, but in seeing it repeated again and again we grow wise to the manipulation and, much like we do when we realize that stinger in a horror movie is only the boyfriend or the cat, we start to cackle.
Cameron is released on his daughter's birthday, and before he leaves prison he decides that he needs to buy her a birthday present--a stuffed pink bunny rabbit. The film unabashedly exploits this device for pathos and then subverts it every chance it gets. Cameron kills Billy, who's just learned of Cameron's past, after he refuses to "put the bunny back in the box" (sadly, the only line that appears to have entered the lexicon to any extent). Later, Cyrus will put a gun to the bunny's head and hold it hostage. Again, Con Air isn't satirizing this material or standing above it; rather, it's having its cake and eating it, too. It understands that sophisticated people go to stupid movies because they're stupid. Melodrama and huge explosions are real button-pushers, and it's fun to have your buttons pushed. I'm not sure I would go so far as to say that Con Air is anti-art, but certainly it's funny because it reminds you of your own fragile mortality. Could the lack of meaning in Con Air be a meaning unto itself? Any conversation about this film should inevitably revolve around the question of whether film, art, or even life itself should be about pleasure or responsibility. Ideally, I would like to say both, but the two tend to exist on a spectrum, don't they?
Things to Do In Denver When You're Dead screenwriter Scott Rosenberg may be the poor man's Tarantino, but Con Air's dialogue is colourful and in love with its own trashiness. "This is your barbeque, Cyrus, and it tastes real good," Cameron says in appeasement. Shortly after shooting an undercover DEA agent, Cyrus taunts the law by singing, "Nothing makes me sadder than the agent lost his bladder on the...aiiiiirplane." Oh, here's another great line: "Sorry, boss, but there's only two men I trust. One of them's me. The other's not you!" Ha, makes you think for a moment there, doesn't it? Cameron says it in response to Vince's request that he lower his weapon; typing that, my cheeks hurt from smiling so much.
Con Air is in exceedingly bad taste, and of course that's the joy of it. Part of the joke is that all of these cons are colourful media superstars, but Rosenberg uses this less to score satirical points against America's love of violence1 than as a means to celebrate and cater to that love of violence. When we laugh at that little ditty about losing your bladder on the airplane, we're laughing with Cyrus and joining in on the kinky pleasure of humiliating another human being. Cyrus is the Anti-Christ: all-seeing, all-knowing, and with an amused detachment towards the human race. Naturally, he dies at the end, but in a brutal, extravagant, Rube Goldbergian way that is as cleverly stupid as everything else in the film, again feeding us hungry lions our pound of flesh while making us laugh at ourselves for wanting it. Midway through the film, Con Air picks up child killer Garland Green (Steve Buscemi), who waxes philosophic about how most murders are crimes of necessity but the greats like Dahmer, Gacy, and Bundy did it because they liked it. Later he tells Cameron, much to Cameron's annoyance, that he once drove through three states wearing this one girl's head as a hat. Green has a close call with a gap-toothed trailer rat, but he ends up not killing any more people over the course of the film and Con Air ends with him free and rolling dice at the craps table. 'Cause they know the audience wants to see him survive, you know?
Although it's still a tremendously pleasure-filled film, Con Air feels inevitably dated in some respects--a strange thing to say about something from 1997, I suppose, but we don't perceive Nicolas Cage, Steve Buscemi, or Dave Chappelle the same way today that we did back then. The biggest surprise, though, is just how endearing and sweet its brainless immorality comes off in comparison to the post-Abu Ghraib hackers of recent years. Cyrus, who is supposed to be the embodiment of all that is evil, draws the line at rape, telling Johnny 23, "I despise rapists. For me, they're somewhere between a cockroach and that white stuff that accumulates at the corners of your mouth when you're really thirsty." Later, when it looks like Johnny 23 might make a captured female prison guard number 24, Cyrus warns, "If your dick jumps out of your pants, you jump off of this plane."
While the very fact that we have a comic-book villain who specializes in rape ensures that the film will never approach the realm of good taste, having Cyrus draw the line at sexual violence suggests a deference to conventional morality nonetheless, a recognition that there is a line wise-cracking antiheroes cannot ever cross, lest they become unlovable. It's a belief that is boldly violated by 2005's The Devil's Rejects and this year's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, each of which depicts lovable antiheroes who remain lovable even as they murder and rape innocent, screaming, physically-attractive women. The guard in Con Air is appealing to look at, to be sure, but she's also tough and portrayed with a modicum of humanity and dignity by character actress Rachel Ticotin. On the other hand, the rape victims in The Devil's Rejects and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning never quite evolve beyond that. The former expects us to identify mostly with the victim, the latter with the perpetrator. I tend to think that good art should be challenging, not merely intellectually (which tends to be what we mean when we throw that word around), but emotionally and morally as well. The Devil's Rejects and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning are challenging in that they break boundaries and force us to ask hard questions about what we want from a film. Con Air doesn't do these things, yet I'm beginning to think there is something of value in not challenging your audience. The film is nasty enough to have a little kick to it, but not enough to spoil our good time.2
As for those charges of classism I alluded to earlier: while I would never claim Con Air to be that much more than a brainless, giggle-filled action movie, it exhibits a genuine sensitivity to class issues to which the critical establishment was seemingly blind. For starters, the film is refreshingly blunt about race: Cameron is "hillbilly" to Diamond Dog and Dave Chappelle's addict character Pinball is a "two-bit Negro crackhead" to Cyrus. (As an aside, does this movie have a terrific cast or what?) It's all blustery macho chest-puffing, simultaneously signifying everything and nothing. These outlaws are trapped in the same system--prison--and to a larger extent perhaps a low economic status, thus they understand that any and all racial differences are quite minor in the grand scheme of things. Whether they grew up in the ghetto or the trailer park, they're uniformly on the periphery of society and ultimately that's what counts. However, to survive in such a system, any difference, no matter how minor, must be harped on to preserve dominance in the hierarchy. White superiority and black superiority are assumed whenever the situation demands it.
There is a similarly tenuous divide between guard and prisoner, as illustrated by a scene inserted into Con Air's extended version in which Cameron asks the female guard if she has anybody back home and she says that she has a cat. She's happy, though: at least the cat doesn't get drunk and embarrass her in front of her friends. Introducing alcoholism into her background suggests that she comes from the same environment as the criminals and that it would only take a slight variation of circumstance to put her on the other side of the bars. The film subtly reinforces this point by having the criminals disguise some of the guards in prison uniforms so they can pull off a convict transfer.
The ending where Cameron reunites with his daughter is touching, particularly when you reflect that we are essentially witnessing a man, recently out of jail, unsure if his never-before-seen eight-year-old daughter is going to reject him. She doesn't look terribly enamoured with the bunny he got her--despite the many risks he took in preserving the toy, it got pretty filthy and worn-out during the course of his adventure. Cameron and his wife have a theme song, Trisha Yearwood's "How Do I Live," which was nominated for both the Oscar and the Razzie that year. It's a dreadfully sappy ballad, but somehow watching it play during this moment of reunification, I found myself tremendously moved all the same. I suppose I was condescending to the characters--not in the sense that it's hilarious they're so white trash that their love theme is "How Do I Live," but that it's endearingly pathetic that their cultural lexicon is so atrophied that they must use "How Do I Live" to describe their emotions. But that's my baggage--I don't think the authors of the film are at making fun of these characters, I think they're being genuine. The only "relevant" filmmaker who is able to use bad pop music like this is Todd Solondz; generally speaking, the sticky emotions of this scene can only be justly conveyed through a genuine junk cinema. They're emotions, it seems, from which the critical establishment would prefer to isolate itself.
Touchstone reissues yet another of their Bruckheimer blockbusters on DVD in an "Unrated Extended Edition" that inflates the running time of the theatrical cut by eight minutes. I've described some of the additional footage above; a tiny bit of violence has also been restored--for instance, we now get a quick shot of Cindino (Jesse Borrego) roasting alive in the aftermath of Cyrus tossing a cigarette onto a puddle of gasoline. Aside from the restorations (many of which will be familiar to viewers of the TV version), the disc's major selling point is that it presents the film in anamorphic widescreen for the first time in the format's history. The 2.38:1 transfer is very handsome and filmlike, if compromised now and again by mild edge-enhancement, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is crisp and transparent. Explosions create the appropriate amount of calamity, but I think I expected more depth from the gunfire. Startup previews for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Glory Road, Annapolis, "Grey's Anatomy: Season One", and Crimson Tide round out the bare-bones platter. Though it's a shame that the original versions of this, Crimson Tide, Coyote Ugly, Enemy of the State, and Gone in Sixty Seconds continue to rot in technically-inferior releases, at least these double-dips came years as opposed to months later, and the elisions, for what it's worth, are seamlessly integrated. Originally published: November 20, 2006.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers One thing I've come to realize over the past few months is that not all Blu-rays are created equal. I don't think I've seen one yet that isn't at least a partial step up from its standard DVD counterpart, but the heights to which a frugal slasher from the '70s (i.e., Halloween) can soar on the format are really quite misleading, as neither a movie's age nor its budget nor its releasing studio nor even its relative popularity is a reliable indicator of how it will look in HiDef--at least where catalogue titles are concerned. Tomorrow, Buena Vista shepherds two warhorses from the Bruckheimer factory to BD, and the difference between them is night and day: where The Rock looks like a freshly-pimp'd ride, the more recent Con Air suggests the "before" snapshot with the dented grill and broken headlights. Now, it's possible the image might wow a total newbie, but it's painfully obvious to these jaded eyes that this 2.35:1, 1080p transfer of Con Air was sourced from a master that should've been retired eons ago, as all the problems--intrusive edge enhancement, horizontal jitter, intermittent speckling, weak blacks--that cleared up when Touchstone reissued the film on anamorphic DVD in an "Unrated Extended Edition" resurface here. (The version that made it to BD is the 115-minute, R-rated theatrical cut.) In fairness, the colours pop in a way they never did in SD, while such NTSC artifacts as moiré patterns are of course a non-issue. As for the audio, can't vouch for the 5.1 PCM track, but the DD 5.1 alternative (640 kbps) definitely has the edge on either of Con Air's DVD releases in terms of fullness. The mix itself is noticeably dated, though, in that it's often white-noisy. As far as extras go, two vintage featurettes (the hype-driven "A View from Above" (5 mins.) and a piece on the Vegas plane crash, "The Destruction of Las Vegas" (3 mins.), that reminds how advanced CGI already was by 1997) and the film's theatrical trailer adorn the platter, each of which is presented windowboxed in dim, dupey-looking video that helps put the shortcomings of the main attraction in perspective. I am, in a word, spoiled. Blu-ray propaganda plus HD trailers for Wall-E and Gone Baby Gone cue up on startup. Originally published: January 7, 2008.
1. That said, I do recall a hilarious placard in the original theatrical cut quoting Dostoevsky: "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." This has been omitted from the Unrated Extended Edition, but Vince recites it in dialogue. return
2. I haven't much room to dwell on the idea, but you might say the same thing about the film's aesthetics. While it is very much wall-to-wall action, it betrays a fidelity to standard Hollywood film narrative that predates the anesthetic excesses of Steven Sommers's Van Helsing, The Mummy, and The Mummy Returns. return
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