CON AIR – DVD review

If you’re like me, you think of Jerry Bruckheimer as the quintessential producer of dumb-action popcorn flicks, and if you like this kind of thing, “Con Air” is one of the quintessential dumb-action popcorn flicks of all time. It’s the kind of film where people outrace fireballs, fall off buildings, and bounce off walls completely unscathed. Once it gets rolling, fights break out, killings occur, and things blow up about every two minutes. Yes, it’s a guy thing, and fans of the genre would have it no other way.

Buena Vista released the picture once before in its original theatrical form, and now we have an unrated, extended cut, adding about seven more minutes of unadulterated mayhem to the mix. Fans of the genre would have it no other way.

In the event you’ve forgotten some of Bruckheimer’s films, they weren’t all bad, just a lot of them. Here’s a sampling of his stuff: “Top Gun,” “The Rock,” “Armageddon,” “Bad Boys,” “Gone in Sixty Seconds,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Remember the Titans,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Bad Company,” “Kangaroo Jack,” “Enemy of the State,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “National Treasure.” Simon West added his own fair share of mischief, directing the movie as a first-time effort from which he must have learned something because he later did “The General’s Daughter,” “Laura Croft: Tomb Raider,” “When a Stranger Calls,” and things of that sort.

Together with a top-notch cast that includes Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, and Steve Buscemi as the biggest crew of superhuman heroes and degenerate monsters imaginable, the producer and director fashion a first-rate dumb-action thriller featuring just about every preposterous act of violence and derring-do you can think of. And they spice it up with enough mocking, over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek humor to make it palatable. At least, I think it was meant tongue in cheek. In any case, fans of the genre would have it no other way.

After his successful stint as a superhero in “The Rock” the year before for Bruckheimer, actor Nicolas Cage again stars as an even more super superhero, Cameron Poe. Unfortunately, Cage doesn’t have the charismatic presence of Sean Connery to bolster the newer film’s credibility, but it doesn’t stop Cage and company from giving it their best shot. Poe is a former decorated Army Ranger who was unfairly busted for killing a guy in self defense and sent to prison for eight years. When he’s finally paroled and anxious to see his wife and daughter, he hitches a ride home on a transport plane dedicated to carrying the most-hardened criminals in the country to a new maximum-security facility. These guys are the “worst of the worst,” and, naturally, wouldn’t you know they’d stage a break for it aboard the airplane, with all hell breaking loose. And, just as naturally, wouldn’t you know that only Cage’s Cameron Poe, Mr. Too-Good-To-Be-True, could stand up against them and save the day.

Since the guards are more obnoxious and more violent that the prison inmates, the filmmakers rather stack the deck in favor of our taking an interest in the bad guys. Yet these bad guys are really bad. As Poe says, “They managed to get every creep and freak in the universe onto this one plane.”

Yes, bad they are, starting with the mastermind of the group, Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom (John Malkovich). Cyrus is a kidnapper, murderer, and extortionist who has spent the better part of his life in jail. But he’s also a bright fellow, and as played by Malkovich, who was going through a villainous phase in his career (“In the Line of Fire”) and seemed to relish the part, Cyrus is witty and charming in his own way. When Cyrus meets a fellow inmate, a serial killer shackled head to toe, he remarks, “This is no way to treat a national treasure” and orders him unbound. Then he says to the killer, “Love your work,” a throwaway line that is so understated, it’s funny.

The rest of the prisoners have similarly colorful names and correspondingly endearing traits: Nathan “Diamond Dog” Jones (Ving Rhames) is a black activist using his white buddies to further his own ambitions; Garland “The Marietta Mangler” Greene (Steve Buscemi) is the aforementioned serial killer, a complete psychotic in the Hannibal Lecter mold (his scene with a little girl has by now become classic); William “Billy Bedlam” Bedford (Nick Chinlund) is a mass murderer; Joe “Pinball” Parker (Dave Chappelle) is an arsonist and druggie and the designated comic relief; “Johnny-23” Baca (Danny Trejo) is a rapist with twenty-three convictions (600 if you’re really counting); and “Swamp Thing” (M.C. Gainey) is the new pilot of the plane after the convicts take over.

The only other “good” guy besides Poe is U.S. Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack), a bookish type of nice guy in charge of transporting the prisoners. Larkin tries to do his best, but the idiot DEA agent in co-charge with him, Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney), hampers his job at every step.

The movie is relentless in its action from the opening minutes to the big finale. Fights break out every moment, things blow up, and people die. But it’s spiced up with enough amusing irony that it comes off more like a hyperkinetic early Bond adventure than another sober-faced “Armageddon.” You can’t really get angry with villains like Cyrus the Virus or Diamond Dog any more than you can hate Dr. No, Auric Goldfinger, or Ernst Stavro Blofeld (not that any of the evildoers in “Con Air” are comparable to the more well-rounded ones in early Bond adventures). But you can never count a good villain out, not even in “Con Air.”

In truth, there is absolutely no reason for this totally inexcusable movie to exist and positively no reason to watch it other than its doing everything it was meant to do better than almost anything of its kind. “Con Air” has no redeeming value short of its nonstop action, its macho posturing, and its self-deprecating whimsy. I mean, how can you resist a guy who blew up a meeting of the National Rifle Association, or a loveable serial killer, or an aircraft that wipes out half the Las Vegas strip? “Con Air” is one of the best bad movies ever made.

One can have almost nothing but praise for the disc’s video transfer, which measures out at a respectable 2.15:1 ratio across my screen, very close to its original 2.35:1. The high-bit-rate, anamorphic reproduction conveys excellent color, sharp definition, and strong contrasts, with practically no grain. I noticed that the images were a tiny bit shinier than I would have liked, but that’s about all. The video is not quite high-definition quality, but it’s about as good as standard-def gets.

And speaking of as good as it gets, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio reproduction is close to the best as well. The movie has a great action-movie soundtrack, with big bass, wide dynamics, and surround sound that never lets up. Swirling winds, airplane engines, car crashes, gunshots, explosions, helicopters, falling bodies, you name it, find their way into the rear channels, while never overpowering the front channels and dialogue.

For reasons unknown, Buena Vista provide virtually no extras on this extended edition beyond the added seven minutes of footage. There are Sneak Peeks trailers for six other BV releases, it’s true, and a chapter insert, but that’s about it. English is the only spoken language the disc provides, plus English captions for the hearing impaired and eighteen scene selections.

Parting Thoughts:
Rude, crude, mindless action and nonstop gratuitous violence just don’t get any better than in “Con Air.” If this thing had been done straight, it might have been a total disaster. As it is, it’s only a partial disaster; just enough to make it fun to watch. “On any other day that might seem strange,” says Poe, watching a Corvette dangle off the back of their airplane in flight.

Incidentally, I should mention that the film used to be rated R for its abusive fervor before the filmmakers added more abusive fervor to the extended edition. Yep, fans of the genre would have it no other way.