"Con Air" is kind of like the original "Snakes on a Plane," only these snakes are all mostly hardcore lifers being transferred to a maximum security prison. Anybody who sees this group being herded onto the plane knows darn well that there's going to be trouble. You might as well load the thing with 500 gallons of gasoline and 50 crates of fireworks, it's so obvious. And if you somehow failed to see the whole plot unfold before your eyes as everyone boarded the plane, this exchange between prison authorities ought to get the message across:
"All those monsters, on one plane."
"Please, Jenny, this is a well-oiled machine."
From that moment, you know somebody's going to throw a mighty big wrench into the well-oiled machine, and the inmates are soon going to be running the asylum. Where's the suspense?
It also doesn't make the originality meter rise very much to have each and every one of these criminals played over-the-top, starting with the biggest of them all, a guy called Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich, in his usual creepy "I'm insane, so watch it" role). There's also a fellow who acts as the Virus's go-to guy, a baadassss named Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames) who himself is a walking, talking cliché. Then there's the requisite creepo, a guy called "23" (Danny Trejo) whose name comes from the amount of rape convictions he has, and of course you can't have a collection of convicts without at least one of them being a serial killer. Steve Buscemi fills the bill as Garland Greene, who boards the plane wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask. Some of these guys are so dangerous they have to be kept in private cells on this cargo-troop plane. And so of course there's only a small amount of guards. So why is it that when you have a film like this, everyone seems to think that the übercriminals need only a bare-minumum number of guards? And of course one of them has to be a woman (Rachel Ticotin), just to wave a "bull" in front of all these red flags. And naturally there has to be a convict who's a nice guy, as well as a guy with a medical condition (in this case, a diabetic who needs an insulin shot . . . or else). Better yet, have him be the same guy (Mykelti Williamson)!
It's all about high concept when you're Jerry Bruckheimer and you're producing another action movie. Does the situation set up a smorgasbord of wild action scenes? That's what's important. Clichés don't matter if the characters can shoot or blow each other up. And suspense? Rather than being surprised about what's going to happen, in an action film like this the tension comes from waiting to find out how it's going to happen.
The wild card here is a character named Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage). We know he's a nice but dangerous guy because we saw him return from the war in one of the film's opening sequences and be pushed into defending his wife in a bar. Like Elvis, he accidentally kills a man and had to serve time. Now that he's released, he's hitching a ride home on this convict express. Good thing, too, because if it wasn't for Poe's presence, this film wouldn't have nearly the interest that it does. His being there sets up a convict/lawman/vigilante scenario that has its roots in Western mythos.
And you know what? The ride, for all it's predictability and over-the-top characters, is still pretty enjoyable. Don't expect more from "Con Air" than what it is: a simple, straightforward action film that pits one man, Rambo-style, against a superior force. There's only mild interest on the ground, where a DEA agent (Colm Meany) wants to end the whole thing by just shooting down the plane with all onboard, and a sympathetic U.S. marshal (John Cusack) tries to buy them time. Cage's character is the lynchpin, and we're constantly reminded that, like Bruce Willis's character in the "Diehard" films, he's got a daughter he wants to live for and (probably not so coincidentally) a present he wants to give her. The clichés just keep coming in this film, and yet, as I said, we keep watching, fascinated. Call it the train-wreck syndrome. Even if it happens in slow motion, even if you see it coming, you can't help but watch the crash. For all you can criticize about Bruckheimer films, the man knows his business.
The 1080p picture is pretty decent, though there's a slight graininess throughout and the black levels seemed just a little off. But the colors and contrast just seem a little subdued (which is more than you can say for this convict cargo). The level of detail was decent, though, and the MPEG-4 transfer didn't leave any artifacts that I could tell. While it's not the kind of visual that takes your breath away, it's also not so bad that you can find a lot of fault, unless you're looking for it.
The featured audio is an English PCM 5.1 uncompressed (48kHz/24-bit) soundtrack that's much stronger than the video. It's a dynamic audio that makes full use of the surround-sound speakers and accommodates the wide range of blasts and bullets that zing here and there. The sound is rich and full, and the high and low ranges come through loud and clear. Additional soundtrack options are English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
This isn't exactly a feature-rich release. All of the extras are here from the DVD release, but that's not saying much. There are just two short features and a few trailers. "A View from Above" is so short that if you leave to use the bathroom you've missed the whole thing. It's a basic promo, really, and not very illuminating. Worse is "The Destruction of Las Vegas," which is half the length and only teases you with a few behind-the-scenes looks at how they tried to create the crash on the strip in Vegas. Then there's the throwaway feature that I fail to understand, the "Movie Showcase" that takes you to "scenes that showcase the ultimate in High Definition picture and sound." Come on, people. HD has been around long enough to where you can dispense with this nonsense and give viewers real bonus features, not commercials for the new HD format.
It's clichéd, it's derivative, it's predictable, and it's full of over-the-top characters. But "Con Air" still manages to entertain in spite of itself. It doesn't surprise, but "Con Air" still holds your attention.