Con Air introduces, then fails to exploit, the largest collection of onscreen villains since the Legion of Doom. Instead, we are treated to a run of the mill plane hijacking, and more explosions and climactic fights than I’d care to count.
This legendary gathering of criminals has converged in one spot for a “routine prison transfer”, that’s anything but routine when a midair prison break threatens to unleash the world’s greatest criminals back into society.
Leading the motley bunch is none other than Cyrus Grissom, aka Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich), a supercriminal who’s like Lex Luthor with a goatee. His second in command is the ruthless black militant Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames). Also among the crowd are the infamous serial killer, the Marietta Mangler, Garland Greene (Steve Buscemi), and Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo), a vicious serial rapist who has eyes for one of the captured guards (Rachel Ticotin). And those are just the major villains…there’s also he drag queen, the redneck, the Native American, and nearly every other villainous stereotype you can imagine. And then there’s Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), a former Army ranger imprisoned for involuntary manslaughter, now parolled, and hitching a ride home. Still a ranger at heart, Cameron resolves to pose as a convict, stop their escape, and save as many lives as he can, particularly that of his diabetic friend Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson).
Coordinating the external forces trying to recapture the convicts are U.S. Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack), and an arrogant DEA agent (Colm Meaney).
Director Simon West knows a good thing, he just doesn’t know when to stop. One or two of the bad guys mentioned above would be more than enough for a typical action film. Con Air gets ambitious by introducing all of them. Unfortunately, after the good intro, there’s too much confusion going on for any of them to get decent development. It would have been interesting to have all these criminal minds with clashing styles and attitudes collide in midair. Instead we are treated to Cyrus the Virus and his colorful band of cronies. Only Steve Buscemi’s Hannibal Lecter clone seems to have a personality that goes beyond mere idiosyncracy (and that is probably done solely in an attempt to somehow justify his eventual fate).
However, stock characters as they are, the actors seem to be having a great time, and some of that does rub off. The film adds to the festive atmosphere by mixing in lots and lots of explosive action. Multiple crashes, explosions, gunfights, and general mayhem abound. In fact, the film has to contort a bit to set up some of its action, but, then again, it never claimed to be overly realistic.
Con Air is definitely not a film to take itself seriously (how many other action films saddle the hero with a pink stuffed bunny?), and, at times, it can get overbearing. It’s entertaining, but be prepared, it’s like taking a drink from a firehose.