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Con Air

By Devin D. O'Leary

You can tell it's summer by the smell of testosterone and popcorn in the air. Yes, nothing says summer like the summer movie season, when action-packed blockbusters battle for screen space with mega-budget star vehicles. With Steven Spielberg's Lost World currently chewing up the cineplexes, it looks like we're deep in the air-conditioned, no-brainer summer movie smorgasbord. The latest film to carve out its own manly hunk of summer movie dollars is the Nicolas Cage starrer Con Air. And if anything can give Spielberg's computerized dinos a run for their money, it's this adrenaline-fueled action flick.

Ever since last summer's ludicrously turbo-charged film The Rock, Cage has been bucking to become Hollywood's newest action hero. With Con Air, überproducer Jerry Bruckheimer (Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun and, of course, The Rock) has constructed a perfect vehicle for Cage while fixing a few of the problems that their previous collaboration had. The Rock was an entertaining action flick, but spent so much time trying to top itself in the spills and thrills department that there was no time to take it all in. Action sequence trainwrecked into action sequence without a second's worth of breathing room in-between. It's hard to construct a roller coaster with nothing but down slopes. You need a few of those long, slow uphills to catch your breath and build up some anticipation for the thrills to come. Thankfully, Con Air has a little more of that ebb and flow built into its framework.

The script by young pup Scott Rosenberg (Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead) wastes little time in getting to the meat and potatoes. Before the credits stop rolling, Gulf War vet Cameron Poe (Cage) has returned home, reunited with his pregnant wife, killed a drunken redneck in a barroom brawl, gone to jail for eight years, gotten paroled and is climbing on board a government transport plane to reunite with his wife and daughter back in Alabama. On board said transport plane, however, is the nastiest, grimiest collection of criminals on Earth--all on their way to a new maximum security prison. Led by criminal mastermind Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich, an always welcome malevolent presence), these "worst of the worst" are about to make an airborne prison break.

Airplane action movies have proved difficult in the past (Die Hard 2, Passenger 57, Executive Decision) due to the claustrophobic confines of their setting. Con Air alleviates a lot of this problem by constructing a competent plot that involves more than just a bunch of colorless terrorists taking over a flight. Intrigue and plotlines abound both in the air and on the ground. There is considerable tension in our protagonist's position. Poe is a seasoned con, so he fits in just fine with the hijackers; but he's also a morals-heavy G.I. doing his best to put a stop to this whole dangerous debacle. How long before the bad guys discover the truth? Meanwhile, on terra firma, U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) battles with an overzealous DEA agent Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney) over what's to be done about this out-of-hand situation. Malloy wants to blow the plane out of the air, but Larkin suspects that ex-U.S. Ranger Cameron Poe is his "ace in the hole."

For the most part, Con Air is believable and intelligently plotted. Only in its climactic "plane crash on the Vegas Strip" sequence does the film go completely over the top (especially in its dispatching of the villainous Malkovich). But, like a rambunctious child who's been good enough to sit on his hands for an hour and a half, you've got to grant a little leeway to run wild at this point.

Nicolas Cage underplays quite nicely as the temperamental but smart parolee. Cage long ago proved himself a fine actor, and if he wants to rake in a few dollars with this action movie stuff, who can fault him? He seems more human on screen than most of today's action stars. The supporting cast (including Steve Buscemi and Ving Rhames) are all well-known faces and lend a lot of personality to what could have been a one-man show. Cusack is especially nice as a laid-back U.S. Marshal who spends the entire film running around in Birkenstocks. It's humorous, earthbound touches like that that make Con Air the one to watch in this summer's box office battle royale.

--Devin D. O'Leary

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