25 Years Later: Revisiting Con Air
Con Air, released in the summer of 1997, was the first movie release to arrive from Jerry Bruckheimer films, following the 1996 death of Don Simpson, and the dissolution of Simpson-Bruckheimer Films (though the latter credit was revived for both Bad Boys 4 Life and Top Gun: Maverick, both of which were sequels to Simpson-Bruckheimer movies.)
It is, however, distinctly in line with the Simpson-Bruckheimer ethos of the 1990s. It’s big and bombastic, featuring a plot that’s both high-concept and completely lacking in realism, and a lot of stuff getting blown the hell up. This includes multiple planes, an airfield, and even, in the famous finale, the Las Vegas Strip.
Con Air was directed by longtime commercial and music video director Simon West, from a script by Scott Rosenberg. The Nicolas Cage-starring Simpson-Bruckheimer action film the summer before, The Rock, famously came from several writers, and was the subject of a lengthy Writers Guild arbitration, although Con Air was credited to just one man.
The concept is admittedly hilarious. A group of notorious criminals, led by criminal mastermind Cyrus “The Virus” (John Malkovich) and Black militant Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames), are all being transported aboard the same plane. Naturally, they manage to hijack the plane, demanding passage to that 1990s action movie perennial, a “non-extradition country.”
Also on the plane is Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage, in his brief action blockbuster period). Sporting long hair and a very questionable Southern accent, Poe is a good guy among these convicts. In fact, he was paroled and was taking the plane home to his freedom.
In case we didn’t get that Poe is pure of heart, he’s given a beautiful wife and daughter, the latter of whom he’s never met. And in an opening scene that makes no sense, Cage’s war hero gets jumped by three rednecks, kills one of them in obvious self-defense in front of two witnesses, and then gets sentenced to 7-to-10 years in prison anyway.
The criminals are a colorful gallery that includes Dave Chappelle, Danny Trejo, and M.C. Gainey. Steve Buscemi plays a Hannibal Lecter-like serial killer, who’s treated as a comic relief character even though it’s established that he’s a murderer of children.
This was also clearly the early Tarantino era, one in which criminals always had smart, erudite vocabularies. “My own proclivities are, uh, well-known and often-lamented facts of penal lore,” Malkovich says at one point.
John Cusack’s U.S. Marshal leads the ground-bound portion of the cast, which is stolen by Colm Meaney as an asshole DEA agent. His character lives up to another ’80s-’90s movie convention: If a gorgeous classic car is introduced, that car will be destroyed on-screen by the movie’s end, probably in slow motion.
The hijacked plane flies around the Southwest for two hours, stopping for the occasional massacre, until the plane crashes into the Las Vegas Strip. In fact, the old Sands Hotel and Casino in Vegas was slated for demolition anyway, so the production was allowed to crash the plane into the hotel. It’s been pointed out before that Con Air is one of three 1990s movies, joining Honeymoon in Vegas and Leaving Las Vegas, in which Nicolas Cage crashes into Vegas.
Con Air is available to stream on several platforms.