Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 15, 2006)
When I view a typical summer blockbuster shoot-em-up movie, I usually find it easy to deactivate the logical parts of my brain and simply go along for the ride. Why did the space-buggies in Armageddon have machine guns on them? Because it looked cool - next!
Unfortunately, the workings of Con Air stretched credibility way too far. The film wants to have its cake and blow it up, too: it needs a protagonist who is a convict but not a criminal, someone with whom the audience will sympathize and respect. To accomplish this difficult feat, Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) goes to jail after killing a man in a bar fight. Sounds simple, right?
No, this was no ordinary bar fight: Poe and his pregnant wife Tricia (Monica Potter) are attacked by three drunks - rednecks, of course, since the audience already hates them - and Poe accidentally kills one of them while protecting himself and his wife. Note that the scumbag came at Poe with a knife when this occurred.
If you haven't seen the film, you're probably wondering how someone could get sent to jail for what it clearly a case of self-defense. Poe was just discharged from the military, where he served as an Army Ranger. Rangers must be nothing more than trained killing machines, because the judge says that Poe - and all other Rangers, I guess - aren't subject to the same laws as the rest of us because they can fight too well! Poe is sent up the creek for what appears to be the maximum sentence, even though he copped a plea to get a shorter term. That’s some nice lawyering!
Sorry, but I just could not get past this patently absurd premise. When I watch Apocalypse Now, I prefer to stop it about two-thirds of the way through because the last 50 minutes of it - the Brando scenes - are so bad, they nearly ruin the film for me.
Once you get past the ludicrous set-up, Con Air seems mildly entertaining. It's a by-the-numbers Jerry Bruckheimer production: good cast, nice production values, stuff blows up, vaguely fascist overtones, blah blah blah. Bruckheimer does what he does very well, but his films clearly have a sameness to them that can be enervating. Of the Bruckheimer films from the period around this one’s 1997 release - Enemy of the State, Armageddon, The Rock, Crimson Tide - I found Con Air to stand as the weakest of the bunch. Basically, it has the slightest storyline of the pack. All of those other films showed heroes battling for some greater societal good, whether to save the world (Armageddon) or just to save some tourists and a city (The Rock).
Con Air lacks that sense of real heroism. Sure, you could argue that when Poe takes it upon himself to stop the planeload of convicts from escaping, he's keeping them off the streets and protecting innocent people. However, I never really got the sense that was his motivating factor. Mainly, he seemed interested in halting the progress of his fellow prisoners because the script told him to do so. The flick tosses in his quest to save his diabetic insulin needing buddy “Baby-O” (Mykelti Williamson), but that’s a loose connection.
All plot faults aside, Con Air does deliver the basic goods. It moves along at a decent pace and provides a fair amount of thrills. Again, it doesn't match the excitement level of most other Bruckheimer films, but it nonetheless gives you a fairly watchable and entertaining two hours.
Note that this “Unrated Extended Edition” of Con Air adds about seven minutes to the running time of the original theatrical version. Don’t expect any significant new sequences, as this take instead features lots of small pieces. For instance, we see Cameron’s arrest, and Pinball introduces himself. These are fine but not exactly stunning.
The most significant additions expand some of the secondary characters. We get to know Baby-O much better and see why he inspired such loyalty in Cameron. Those elements help allow us to better understand why Cameron won’t leave him behind, though they’re not truly necessary.
We also get a little flirting between Larkin and fellow agent Ginny, and we learn more about Malloy’s relationship with DEA agent Sims. That last one makes Malloy less cartoony, which is actually a negative here. He exists as a one-dimensional prick until the end of the movie, so the extra character range makes him less effective in an odd way.
I can’t claim that the extra seven minutes does much to make Con Air a better film. It displays slightly greater definition and dimensionality, but since it exists as a thrill ride, none of that’s really important. Still, I think there’s some enjoyable and useful stuff here, and the longer cut is probably the superior version of the film.