Courtesy Photo
Directed by Simon West

Starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Rachel Ticotin, Colm Meany, Ving Rhames, Danny Trejo, Renoly, Jose Zuniga, Dave Chappelle & Monica Potter

"Con Air"

Opened: June 6, 1997 | Rated: R

The first week of January I saw what still stands as one of the worst pictures this year, "Turbulence." It was about an escaped serial killer hijacking a 747 and threatening to crash it into Los Angeles while officials on the ground argued about shooting down the plane.

This week we have "Con Air," about a serial killer hijacking a prison transport plane and crashing it into Las Vegas while officials on the ground argue about shooting down the plane.

What's the difference? "Con Air" has an A-list cast and $50 million worth of explosions.

Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, whose modus operandi is sensory-overload action movies ("Crimson Tide," "The Rock"), "Con Air" stars Nicolas Cage as Cameron Poe, an ex-Army Ranger hero who is being paroled eight years after killing a man in a brawl while defending his wife's honor.

Although he was tried, and presumably jailed, in his home state of Alabama, he hitches a ride "home" on a plane transporting prisoners to a new federal facility in the West. The movie doesn't bother to explain this, but I guess his family must have moved across the country while he was in the joint.

Poe's fellow passengers, who start out locked in cages and handcuffed, include psycho killer Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich), psycho killer "Diamond Dog" (Ving Rhames), psycho killer Garland Greene (Steve Buscemi), psycho killer "Swamp Thing" (M.C. Gainey), serial rapist Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo) and half a dozen others.

So, with the aid of hidden lock-picks and guns stashed on board, mayhem ensues. The prisoners kill half the guards and take over the plane, planning to escape to Mexico.

Hero Poe plays along, hoping for an opportunity to act as spoiler so he can get home to his wife and daughter. Meanwhile John Cusack and Colm Meany (from "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine") play government officials who debate blowing up the plane.

There are a few fights on board while Poe establishes himself as a tough guy, but most of the excitement comes when the plane crash lands at an abandon airfield in Nevada, where there's a 20-minute shootout with authorities who have been tipped off to the plane's arrival.

Naturally, there are scores of flammable 55-gallon drums lying around and a few rusty vehicles that still run and have the keys in the ignition. Many rounds of ammunition and a few loud booms later, most of the good guys are dead and the plane takes off again.

Like "The Rock," the only thing that really separates "Con Air" from any other big budget action movie is its reliable cast.

Cage is an actor so interested in his characters and their motivations that he lends credibility to any project. He seems to be on an action movie kick these days (he has another one, "Face/Off," opening in three weeks) and "Con Air" benefits from his presence. Anybody with decent pectorals could have played this role, but with Cage there's a little depth.

Malkovich is also a fine actor, seemingly fated to play hyper-intelligent lunatics, and he's good at it. Buscemi, of course, gets the movies best lines.

"Con Air" is passably entertaining for the first 90 minutes, but after the prisoners shoot their way off the airfield and back into the sky (Poe stays on board to hopefully rescue a guard and a diabetic prisoner -- what a guy), the movie becomes, in quick succession, silly then generic.

Another crash landing, this time into the lobby of a Las Vegas hotel, leads to your standard (but still absurd) explosions-and-gunfire last act, and a tender moment from hell with the wife and kid (apparently flown in by the government for a happy ending). "Con Air" could have swapped final reels with most other action movies and I doubt many people would notice.

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