The big budget blockbuster bonanza that was the '80s lives on in ConAir
By Zak Weisfeld
"Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty, and dies with chaos."--Will Durant
Despite teeth-grinding rage, weeks of the blackest depression, tremors, night sweats, dire poverty, and a childhood lost to disappointment, every summer I allow myself to be reeled in by a big summer movie. Like a man caught in the throes of a deeply dysfunctional relationship, I keep thinking, maybe they'll change, maybe this year they'll start to care about character and plot. And in the back of my head I can hear that voice, "They're going to screw you Weisfeld. They're going to drag you in, take your money and a couple of hours of your life, and then boot you out into the parking lot like a freaking bum." But then the preview starts and Nick Cage stands at the doorway of the plane, the wind in his hideous wig, and the explosions start like drumbeats, and the one-liners are tossed around like favors from a Mardi Gras float, and the doubts are beaten down, and I say, "Yes, yes, sweet goddess of summer movies, take me, take me, for I am yours."
And so, despite the knowledge that I was almost certain to be burned, I ponied up my six dollars and 50 cents to see the first movie fat enough to take a shot at the post-Lost World weekend. Welcome to ConAir.
ConAir is a Jerry Bruckheimer Productions release. It was Bruckheimer who, with partner Don Simpson, formed Bruckheimer/Simpson Productions, the company that produced Top Gun and a slew of other big budget movies, many starring Tom Cruise, that almost single-handedly defined Hollywood summer movies in the '80s. But since erstwhile partner Don Simpson's body was found in his Beverly Hills estate last year--a bloated corpse caked with cocaine and surrounded by a dozen or so Laotian prostitutes who were in the process of ritualistically slaughtering a calf--the big question was, who was the brains behind the operation? Did Bruckheimer have the touch, or had Simpson taken it to his grave?
The question, of course, is a trick; the correct answer is, Brains? Touch? The Bruckheimer/Simpson films have never been about either, and by now the formula is so well known that Bruckheimer Productions could keep turning them out even with Bruckheimer himself pushing up daisies from a plot in Bel Air.
At their best, the Bruckheimer/Simpson films are a charming leading man, some explosions, and a lot of quick cuts; ConAir sticks very close to the recipe.
It is vaguely the story of Cameron Poe, an unjustly imprisoned Army Ranger who's returning home to his ageless, seemingly 16-year-old wife (Monica Potter) and the 8-year-old daughter he's never met. Sadly for Poe, he's returning aboard an airplane conveniently filled with the worst of our nation's criminals. And even worse, these criminals take over the plane. I'll let you do the math from there.
What attracted me to ConAir was not the brilliance of the concept but the casting. John Malkovich is predictably cast as the villainous Cyrus the Virus, who masterminds the plan. But joining him on the dark side are some great character actors: Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, and Danny Trejo. Standing up for truth, justice, and the American Way are Nicolas Cage and John Cusack, two of my generation's best leading men.
Not surprisingly, ConAir peaks with the credits and the trailer; after that, things kind of fall apart. After a spurt of exposition and a too-easy takeover of the plane, ConAir's narrative unravels like a cheap sweater, leaving the audience in a brutal, flaming pit of dangerously random action. An hour in and plot holes start appearing like bomb craters, and even the stacks of bodies generated by the action aren't enough to fill them.
All of this was expected, of course. But what was hoped was that Nick Cage would stand up and be as cool and as funny as he was in The Rock and then none of it would matter. Sadly, Cage's talents are badly wasted by whatever Bruckheimer functionary actually took director credit. (The functionary in question would be Simon West--Ed.) And, with the exception of Buscemi, the rest of the cast proves equally disappointing.
Despite problems that would cripple a smarter or cheaper movie, ConAir manages to be pretty entertaining and the Bruckheimer formula proves its robustness--as does Bruckheimer's Soviet style of filmmaking. ConAir is the complete conquest of editing over narrative, character, and coherent morality.
ConAir ultimately represents the conquest of idiocy and savagery over everything else, as though the Bruckheimer action formula overrode any kind of civilized framework. ConAir is the sort of movie that Romans of Caligula's time would have recognized. The hero's motivations are so shallow that his victory over evil is satisfying only because it means you get to see somebody's head crushed in a gravel yard and the only let down is that it doesn't happen sooner and to more people. What can you say about a movie when the final joke is that the most depraved killer in the system is on the loose and hitting it big at the craps table? (Especially when it is kind of funny somehow.)
If, as Dostoevsky and Cusask said, the level of a civilization can be judged by examining its prisons, what then can be gleaned from watching its movies? After watching ConAir, all I can say is, hopefully not much.
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