Con Air is a dumb film, and that’s just fine. In the action genre, being dumb can be a feather in a film’s cap. Dumb comedies almost universally are bad, unredeemable pictures (see Adam Sandler’s illustrious portfolio), and this is even more the case with dumb dramas, but dumb action films like this one, Face/Off, Point Break, The Running Man, or The Fast and the Furious all carry a certain charm about them. Perhaps it’s because the acting can be counted upon to be bad, but bad in a way that’s good for a laugh. Perhaps it’s because the narrative can be counted upon to be idiotic. Or maybe it’s just that, at the very least, most of these movies provide cheap thrills that mollify us—explosions, car chases, shootouts, and fisticuffs. These are films that exist to be enjoyed ironically. To take them seriously as some critics do—search out old reviews of Con Air and you’ll see writers bemoaning the death of American filmmaking—is to err, and to expend far more energy than is necessary in criticizing a work that consciously attempts to be ridiculous. Few films provide as much ironic fun as Con Air.
Nicholas Cage stars as Cameron Poe, an Army ranger imprisoned for manslaughter. He is paroled, and his way home is on a flight with about twenty other convicts. In the air, a small group of cons, led by the fervent “Cyrus the Virus” (John Malkovich), stage a mile high jailbreak, hijack the plane, and announce that they will shortly be changing course and flying onwards to the Caribbean. But Poe has other plans: back home in Alabama, a beautiful wife and daughter await him, and he has no desire to flee the country with the jailbirds. With the help of Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) he sets about thwarting Cyrus’ plan.
Bill Simmons (of ESPN and Grantland) perceptively described the problem that most dumb action films grapple with. Stupid plots are easy to dream up and action sequences will succeed so long as you ensure production values are high. But, Simmons says, the real concern, something that actually requires some thought, is finding a believable way to inject the hero into the mix. Luckily for us, Con Air’s setup makes no sense (as Simmons and comedian Adam Carolla have previously described) which, at least for me, just makes the film all the more ridiculous, and therefore all the more enjoyable. How does Poe, a decorated war hero, manage to get locked up for eight years just hours after being discharged from the army? In defending his wife’s honor at a bar, he gets into a fistfight with three roughnecks and accidentally kills one of them. Cut to his trial where he is given a maximum of ten years for manslaughter— no matter the fact that it was he that was attacked, by three men no less. (As Simmons and Carolla muse, how bad does your lawyer have to be to not get you off that rap, and how uncompassionate was that jury to find you guilty there?) In his summary, the judge notes the following: “With your military skills you are a deadly weapon, and are not subject to the same laws as other people that are provoked because you can respond with deadly force.” Excuse me? What kind of dystopian society is this film set in where ex-soldiers are subject to laws different from us everyday folk?
The inanity of those first two minutes perfectly encapsulates how silly the remainder of the film is. Two hours of hilarity, with bad dialogue, bad acting, and superbly bad directing follow. Cage valiantly attempts to do something akin to acting, but I think you can actually see the cogs turning in his head as he ‘performs.’ This is not the sole source of amusement. The myriad other funny things about the film are well documented in the above-linked clip with Carolla and Simmons: the fact that the cons managed to unlock their handcuffs with ordinary pins; the fact that Cyrus lit a gasoline-soaked man on fire by flicking a burning cigarette at him; the way the squealing 80s guitar kicks in whenever Nic Cage is about to get heroic. Con Air is lusciously absurd, and I adore every minute of it.
Ridiculous action films like Con Air succeed despite themselves. One could easily take a very narrow critical approach to them. We can say simply that these are not good films and leave it at that. Con Air fails to meet every objective measure of quality that we can agree on—we expect films to be well written, well acted, and so on, all important marks that Con Air fails to achieve. Call it bad, then. But using that ‘good/bad’ dichotomy is overly simplistic, and it does not take into account that we can enjoy these films for how silly and incongruous they are. Even if we are hugely entertained by the antics we see here, and even if we respect the buffoonery that takes place, we still can’t call Con Air a ‘good’ film because it is an abject failure in every other regard. We might therefore consider judging it by a different standard.
Should we should praise Con Air for its unintentional success—not as a good film, but as a haphazard work that we can laugh at? Towards the end of my retrospective on Face/Off I suggested that some praise is indeed in order, in as much as these films seek to be pure entertainment and they deliver on that promise, often by any means necessary. They are, at least in that regard, triumphant, although that’s not a triumph that can be quantified on the ordinary five-star scale. I can’t imagine a reviewer awarding Con Air five stars just because it’s a real riot.
But these films don’t just succeed because we laugh at them. That’s certainly a major component of it—I find the judge saying that the normal law doesn’t apply to Nic Cage to be highly comical—but we should recognize that being funny isn’t the only thing that matters, not even in these slapdash works. In fact, Con Air succeeds because the filmmakers are at least somewhat aware that their film is a mess. They don’t place any significance on their material, so little of what goes wrong backfires on them. Practically at all times they’re winking knowingly at their audience. Take, for instance, the fact that Con Air includes a bevy of action film clichés, too many for it to be a coincidence, or a flaw in the script. There’s the cigarette lighting up a guy that’s dowsed in gasoline; there’s the upstart cop winning over his superiors; there’s a one-man-army maverick hero trying to get back to his wife; there’s the motley crew of villains that wouldn’t be working together under any other circumstances; there’s the requisite hero-runs-toward-camera-with-explosion-going-on-behind-him shot, and so much more.
It’s all for a lark. And as silly as it may seem to say this, there is some technical craft required to make a catch-all action film that panders so well to the type of audience that likes ridiculous action films. We shouldn’t discount the fact that you do need some filmmaking skill to make Con Air—it’s just not the type of skill we ordinarily praise. You need to fail to make Con Air, but you have to be good at failure. The explosions still need to be capably filmed; the setup for the clichés must still be there. A five-minute YouTube montage of funny action film tropes would be entertaining, but it wouldn’t have anywhere near the staying power of Con Air. This film sticks with us because it succeeds in its own way. It is an amicable collection of some of the most juvenile things about the action genre presented in a way that utterly disarms us and makes us laugh. As strange as it may be to frame it like this, Con Air is well-made. It’s no Taxi Driver, but it isn’t Catwoman either.
As 2012 winds down, we’ll look at some of the marquee titles that have their anniversaries this year. Coming up are the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and To Kill a Mockingbird, but next week we’ll cover the fiftieth anniversary of the classic D-Day film The Longest Day, and how it compares to modern takes on the Normandy campaign like Saving Private Ryan.