Thursday, 2 February 2012

FilmQuest 2012 (8/30): 'Con Air':

"Beautiful? Sunsets are beautiful, newborn babies are beautiful. This... this is fucking spectacular!" If I hadn't seen Michael Bay's 'The Rock' the day before there's a good chance producer Jerry Bruckheimer's next film - 1997's Simon West directed 'Con Air' - would have seemed like the epitome of hi-octane. However, seen in the shadow of Bay's quote-a-second action flick it seemed comparatively sedate.

But this is odd because 'Con Air', the latest entry in my rapidly expanding "FilmQuest 2012" series, is arguably more extreme than Bay's film in terms of raw ingredients: this time Nicolas Cage has daft hair and a thick Cajun accent, he gets to run (and jump) away from explosions with far greater frequency, and the cartoonishly over the top villains are brilliantly cast (including Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Danny Trejo and Dave Chappelle) with the scenery-chewing John Malkovich in top form. It also has a suitably BIG premise: the world's most loathsome scumbags (notorious rapists, drug lords and mass murderers) hijack a prison transport plane, making it hell in the air. There is, of course, one good man aboard. Meanwhile the authorities on the ground (led by John Cusack) bicker over whether to shoot the plane out of the sky or trust the one good man to restore order.

These cops argue over whose jurisdiction the whole incident is whilst, over the next hour and a bit, pretty much everything explodes and people are battered, shot, stabbed, crushed, impaled and burned with regularity. There is a pitched gun battle between the cons and soldiers in a plane scrapyard, an attack helicopter chase through the Grand Canyon, a crash landing on the Las Vegas Strip (with landmarks destroyed), and a high-speed chase between police motorcycles (commandeered by the Cage and Cusack dream-team, no less) and a rampaging convict-carrying fire truck - complete with climactic good versus evil fistfight on the roof of the moving vehicle. This is a film where a plane tows a sports car into the air for chrissakes, prompting the line "on any other day that might seem strange". But the best line? "Sorry boss, but there's only two men I trust. One of them's me. The other's not you."

As with 'The Rock' every aspect of the story is heightened to its greatest, most ludicrous possible level to ratchet up the drama and punctuate the stakes for all involved. For instance, Nicolas Cage's Cameron Poe isn't just a mild-mannered convict due to leave prison after an 8 year stretch, on the wrong plane at the wrong time (on a story level this might have been enough). No, he's a decorated former soldier who returned home from serving his country to find his pregnant wife (Monica Potter) being pestered by a despicable drunk, who he accidentally kills after being attacked.

He's then assured by a lawyer that he'll only serve a year if he pleads guilty, but the judge gives Poe no less than 7 years because he's a soldier - engendering a sense that he's a victim of rough justice. Yet he's never the slightest bit angry or twisted: a benevolent convict who shares his sweeties with the kindly diabetic man in his bunk (Mykelti Williamson) and writes regular letters home to his young daughter. Oh, and the hijacking of his flight home doesn't merely jeopardise his freedom - it also means he might miss his daughter's birthday party.

The ingredients are there but I think it's held by the fact that West, unlike Bay, is not any sort of visual stylist. Whilst 'The Rock' is rendered even more lovably ridiculous by all the American flags and fast-cutting of its uber-trashy auteur, 'Con Air' just isn't quite as intense. And if 'The Rock' was an inspired once in a lifetime mess of various jobbing writers (including Tarantino and Sorkin) then 'Con Air' is a much more coherent but infinitely less romantic piece from a single screenwriter: Scott Rosenberg. There are some quotable lines ("Put... the bunny... back... in the box"), but nothing on the level of 'The Rock'. Though I accept that this is an unfair and arbitrary standard of measure. Like I said, I saw both more or less back-to-back.

One aspect of 'Con Air' that genuinely elevates it above most of the action competition (puns definitely intended) are the interactions between Cusack's US Marshal Vince Larkin and Colm Meaney's DEA Agent Duncan Malloy. Whereas most movies would be comfortable with the idea that these convicts are an evil blight on society, Larkin makes constant references to the idea that they've been, to some extent, institutionalised by the prison system. Malloy angrily disagrees and often calls the prisoners "animals", but he is consistently shown as pig-headed and governed by reactionary anger rather than thought (see the sequence in which Cusack tries and fails to convince him that he's chasing the wrong plane). Conversely Larkin is shown as intelligent and rational. Perhaps their relationship is best defined by the following exchange:

Vince Larkin: "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by observing its prisoners." Dostevsky said that... after doin' a little time.
Duncan Malloy: "Fuck you!" Cyrus Grissom said that after putting a bullet in my agent's head, okay?

Malloy is motivated by revenge which is opposite of justice. This philosophical feud is complicated by the scene in which Malloy wants to shoot the plane down over the desert, only for Larkin to ensure that he doesn't - directly leading to the crash landing in Las Vegas, potentially killing hundreds of people in a densely populated area. Is Malloy's pragmatism vindicated here? Maybe that's a valid way of seeing it, though it's probably not the view taken by the film: after all, we want Cage to survive to see his wife and daughter to the strains of "How Can I Live".

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