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Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Film Buff: Mai-Tais and Yahtzee

In the category of "bad movies we love" 1997's Con Air stands out as an over-the-top masterpiece. Well, piece of something, anyway. Still, we cannot help but adore this implausible prison-escape-from-a-plane movie.
This was the first film that super producer Jerry Bruckheimer made without his partner, the late Don Simpson, and Simpson reportedly hated the script and wanted nothing to do with the film. (Simpson passed away before the film was finished.)
The premise is simple: Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), a good ol' boy and former Army Ranger, kills a man while defending his pregnant wife and is sent to prison where he corresponds with the daughter he has never met. There, he befriends Baby-O, a good-natured convict we can only presume must be there for removing the tags from his mattresses (accidentally, of course.)
Poe is finally paroled (about ten minutes into the film), and he and Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson), who is coincidentally being transferred to another prison on the same day, are about to board the Jailbird, a plane used to transport convicts. Boarding the same plane, are Cyrus "the Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich) and other way-too-evil-to-really-fully-explain-just-how-bad (so the movie doesn't) baddies.
A few minutes into the flight, the baddies take over and it's up to Cameron Poe to save the day.
*Beware of spoilers from here forward.*
First, the good:
Great action sequences, a clever sense of humor (the whole movie takes place on July 14th - Bastille Day), and director Simon West's ability to move us from laughter to horror to tears (albeit with every cliche in the book) are what keep me watching this movie every time it comes on cable.
Now, the bad:
Nicolas Cage's southern-fried accent seems to have been gleaned from repeated viewings of the first half hour of Forrest Gump. Actually, there are a few Gump connections in this movie. Mykelti Williamson also played Forrest's good-natured best friend, Bubba. Malkovich worked with Gary Sinise (Lt. Dan) for many years at the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. (Sinise once described Malkovich's proclivity for performing Springsteen's "Blinded by the Light" when clowning around after shows. I'd like to have seen that.)
Cage looks good. He looks great, in fact, transforming perfectly into the lean, muscular type of comic book hero of which he is known to be a big fan. This makes it a little easier to overlook the fact that his "acting" in this film consists mostly of grimacing and mumbling, but only a little easier.
Also, for a movie that claims to be about the "gray area" of crime, punishment, and rehabilitation - twice quoting Dostoyevsky himself - the characterizations are extremely black-and-white. The only character who appears to change from the beginning of the film to the end is Steve Buscemi's mass murdering, Hannibal Lecter clone, Garland Greene, who manages to not kill anyone throughout the entire movie. (This fact is changed in the unrated extended cut, which I don't recommend for this and a number of other reasons.)
Con Air is one of my guilty pleasures because there is truly very little cinematically redeeming about it. To include it among my other favorites like The Seven Samurai, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Great Escape, and The Day of the Jackal seems inappropriate and yet also wholly appropriate, because, ultimately, the quality of a movie is measured not by the finer points of its acting, script, or cinematography, but by how much it moves us, and I am always, always moved by this scene, the second-to-last in the film:

Oh, yeah, John Cusack's in this movie, so it automatically gets two "awesome" points just for that.

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