when Nicolas Cage's brow darkens and he announces, with his peculiarly characteristic mix of determination and trepidation, "I'm gonna get back to mah wife. She's mah hummin'bird," you don't know whether to swoon or laugh. Probably a combination of the two would be most appropriate. As with last year's "The Rock," "Con Air" is Cage's bid to make himself a believable hero to mainstream moviegoers. He's again playing a decent, ordinary guy forced by circumstances to risk his life in order to save others. This time, he's Cameron Poe, an Army Ranger sentenced to eight years in prison after unintentionally killing a man who'd been threatening Poe's wife. Paroled, Poe is sent home to his wife and the daughter he's never seen on a plane transporting a host of the most dangerous criminals in America to a new super-secure prison. The baddies hijack the aircraft and Poe steps in to save the day.
Laughter doesn't seem like an inappropriate or cynical response to what Cage does in "Con Air." But, as with his performance in "The Rock," it's difficult to say why he's funny. Wearing his hair long and flowing, and speaking in a deep, rolling Southern accent, Cage doesn't parody Poe's bravery or condescend to the character. When Poe has a chance to get off the plane, he refuses so he can take care of his buddy (Mykelti Williamson), a diabetic who needs insulin. That's the sort of noble gesture that wouldn't be out of place in a '40s movie.
But of course, Cage would be. Even playing an upright good guy, Cage is like nobody else the movies have ever seen. Maybe to an actor who's specialized in oddballs, someone this good and brave is a misfit. And maybe that's the only way it's still possible for audiences to believe in Poe's brand of heroism. Cage's performance is the opposite of pomo irony. He taps into the oddities of ordinary people. If you can imagine a Preston Sturges character becoming the star of a big-budget action blockbuster, you can get a sense of what Cage pulls off here. Cage has shown more romantic ardor than any actor now working. He has an ability to look at a woman and seem literally sick with love. In "The Rock" and "Con Air," his eyes shine with a passion to do the right thing.
How's the movie? Big, loud, brutal and stupid, that's how it is. But then, you don't need a critic to tell you that -- anyone with a grade-school education who's seen the previews can figure that out. At one point Poe recites the idiotic mistakes the feds made in setting up the whole con airlift. Is that screenwriter [not the Salon editor] Scott Rosenberg's way of anticipating complaints about his implausible screenplay? "Con Air" asks us to swallow that a parolee would be put on a plane with the country's most dangerous criminals; that aforesaid scum would be put aboard without being subjected to a cavity search or metal detectors; that the plane transporting these miscreants would be equipped with an arsenal ... just in case. For me the most glaring inconsistency is that these men are supposed to have committed the most heinous crimes in modern America. Then what's Ving Rhames' Diamond Dog doing there, when all he did was blow up a meeting of the National Rifle Association?
The direction of "Con Air" is credited to one Simon West, but since the movie follows the big-bang pattern that the producer, Jerry Bruckheimer (making his first movie since the death of his partner, Don Simpson) has followed in all his previous films ("The Rock," "Top Gun"), we can assume that "Simon West" is the name for the computer program that followed Bruckheimer's instructions this time around. Whatever it is, it couldn't be human, since the movie hasn't been so much directed as manufactured. There's a lot of attention to pyrotechnics, explosions, crashes, etc., but almost none to shooting and editing the action so that we can see where the characters are in relation to what's going on. A truly human director wouldn't revel so much in the beatings and murders of characters we're meant to identify with -- not even to whip up our bloodlust against the bad guys. And surely a human being could think of less unsavory suspense devices than whether or not a serial rapist will have his way with the one female guard (Rachel Ticotin) aboard the plane (and by the way -- who was the genius who put her on board?), or whether a serial killer will cut up a little girl.
As Hollywood continues to grind out big-budget action movies, they'll be populated more and more by actors trying to cross over with mainstream audiences. In "Con Air," the unlikely presence of John Cusack, John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi aren't enough to subvert the movie's dumbness, but they each project enough skepticism about what they've gotten themselves involved in to give the movie its only flashes of wit apart from Cage.
Cusack, whose leftist politics are the exact opposite of the lynch-mob mentality movies like "Con Air" rile up, finesses the contradiction by playing a liberal U.S. marshal who gets to outsmart his by-the-book colleagues. Cusack's customary dryness drains any potential smugness from the role. As Cyrus the Virus, the criminal genius who masterminds the hijacking, Malkovich's customary blasi smarminess works in his favor. Sporting a shaved head and goatee, Malkovich underplays nicely (and for once without using underplaying as a way of overplaying), scoring some solid evil-genius laughs. Malkovich's distance, his refusal to commit to the role, feels like an actor's sanity, a determination not to be the movie's sacrificial scum bag.
But it's Buscemi who goes the furthest out. He plays serial killer Garland Greene as the odd duck next door, the sort of quiet kid you forget immediately after you graduate and don't remember until you read in the paper that he's cut up the ladies' sewing circle at his church. Buscemi makes his entrance in a Hannibal Lecter mask and then reverses expectations by playing Garland as a quiet, thoughtful sociopath, sitting through the flight offering his psychological insights on the behavior of his plane mates. It's an underwritten role, and it spoils the fun a bit that Garland is made part of a sickeningly prolonged subplot. But Buscemi moves through the movie with the calm self-possession of the truly insane. The more you see of him, the funnier he gets. If the audience were the parole board, they'd not only let Garland loose, they'd throw him a going-away party to boot.
PHOTOS BY FRANK MASI | COURTESY OF TOUCHSTONE PICTURES | ALL RIGHTS RESERVED