The 90’s was an evolutionary decade for Hollywood action films. Hong Kong style Kung Fu and Gun Fu immigrated to the west with some of its legends such as John Woo and Jackie Chan breaking into Hollywood.
It also saw the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Van Damme with their larger-than-life screen presence and god-like physiques being replaced by regular actors wanting to do action. In steps Nicolas Cage, an actor not really known for his action roles – unless you count the “Top Gun” rip off “Fire Birds”.
Cage shocked audiences in giving us his holy trinity of action entertainment that included ‘The Rock’ and John Woo’s ‘Face Off’. It was ‘Con Air’, released in June 1997 however, that put Cage on the action hero map.
Cast as former army ranger and parolee Cameron Poe, audiences watched agog as Cage with his flowing mullet, jaw-dropping physique, and deadly martial arts skills, saved the f****** day from super criminals intent on escape.
Twenty five years later the film has become the most iconic of all his action films and the subject of many an internet meme. With the prospect of Cage coming back as everyone’s favorite ex-con, we look back on this legend of 90’s action to see how well it’s held up after more than two decades…!
Nicolas Cage stars as ex-army ranger-turned convict Cameron Poe, released on parole and heading home to his family only for his plane ride to be hijacked by some of the world’s baddest villains.
Helping Poe save the day is US Marshall Vince Larkin, played by John Cusack, who identifies Poe as an ally. Marshall wants to bring down the plane in one piece much to the chagrin of DEA agent Duncan Malloy – Star Trek: “Deep Space Nine’s” Colm Meaney – who wants to blow the plane full of cons right out of the sky.
Mykelti Williamson (‘Heat’) plays ‘Baby-O’ a fellow convict and Poe’s friend whose diabetes becomes life-threatening during the hijack forcing Poe to make a bold choice. Also caught up in the ride from hell is Rachel Ticotin (‘Total Recall’), as Guard Sally Bishop.
Patiently waiting for her man to come home is Monica Potter as Cameron’s ‘humming bird’ Trisha Poe.
This badass line up of super convicts is led by heavyweight thespian John Malkovich as Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom. Aiding The Virus in his aerial escape are Ving Rhames (Mission Impossible) as militant guerrilla Nathan ‘Diamond Dog’ Jones, and Nick Chinlund (‘Lethal Weapon 3’) as William ‘Billy Bedlam’ Bedford.
Also in the line up of these unusual suspects are Danny Trejo (‘Desperado’, ‘Heat’) as Johnny 23, a serial rapist whose attention is solely focused on the handcuffed Guard Sally, and M.C Gainey (‘Ulterior Motives’) as the pilot known as Earl “Swamp Thing” Williams.
Controversial comedian Dave Chappelle makes an appearance as the wise-talking Joe ‘Pinball’ Parker. Rounding off the line up of villainous passengers is Steve Buscemi (‘Reservoir Dogs’) as Garland Greene aka “The Marietta Mangler”, a serial killer so chilling that even the hardened cons are afraid of him.
After serving eight years in prison for killing a man whilst defending himself and his wife, former army ranger Cameron Poe is on parole and heading home to a family reunion.
Excited to see his wife, and nervous about meeting his young daughter – whom he’s never seen – Poe is loaded onto the ‘Jailbird’ plane a Fairchild C-123 Provider flying the deadliest convicts to a supermax prison in Alabama. Poe’s nervous excitement turns to dread when the plane is taken over by the prisoners, led by Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom.
Despite being offered numerous attempts at escape, Poe stays on the plane to protect his friend ‘Baby-O’ whose diabetes turns deadly when his insulin is damaged during the hijack.
Meanwhile, US Marshall Vince Larkin uncovers Cyrus’ plans and works to bring the plane down safely when he realizes Poe is an ally. This puts him at odds with DEA Agent Duncan Malloy intent on destroying the plane as payback for the death of one of his agents killed by Cyrus.
A race against time and a clash of egos ensues as Poe and Larkin both try to stop ‘Con Air’ from reaching its destination.
When the trailer first dropped for ‘Con Air’ it whetted the appetite of action film fans with images of a buff Nicolas Cage kicking butt and saving the day.
Featuring a mix of explosive gun play, and some seriously slick martial arts, it looked to solidify Nicolas Cage as an action star barely two years after his Oscar win with ‘Leaving Las Vegas’.
The finished film was not disappointing as such as it delivered on all the qualities that make this an enjoyable action romp: testosterone-oozing super villains, memorable one liners, and when it comes to the action there is certainly plenty of gun fights, helicopter chases, and some jaw-breaking fist fu, too.
Whilst it starts off a bit dark, writer Scott Rosenburg and director Simon West lodge tongues firmly in the cheek by injecting fun into the proceedings.
A Bar Fight Turns Deadly
If you were sitting there wondering when Mr Cage would leap into action with his newly-acquired fighting skills, then the wait isn’t long.
The opening fight between Cameron and some burly barflies is laden with tragedy as we know the outcome, putting the ultimate down on our heroes coming home party.
The fight itself is packed full of technically crowd-pleasing action including the now classic arm-smasher block, and strike with a few choice Jiu Jitsu locks and throws. Yes the boy can more than hold his own in a scrap and it really does leave you wanting to see more.
Welcome to Con Air
Writer Scott Rosenberg very wisely split the action and unfolding events between the take over of the plane and the investigation on the ground, giving the film a very solid, brisk pace.
Enough room is left for bizarre, intellectual debates which seem almost out of place and it feels as if the script is trying to appear cleverer than it is. In between these moments, which do add some head-scratching levity, which is not entirely unwelcome, we are reminded that yes this is a testosterone-filled, balls-to-wall action film.
The melee that is the ingeniously-planned hijacking is deliberately messy as the anarchic unfolding makes this exhilarating. Attention is split between the plethora of events from Guard Bishop putting her nightstick to good use (and holding it like a consummate Kobudo-ka), to Diamond Dog pounding his way through the prison guards in true Henry Cavill (‘Mission Impossible: Fallout’) style.
What it lacks in finesse, and rich, technical detail it more than makes up for in adrenaline-fueled tension. It paves the way for some nail-biting anticipation for Poe to ‘un-cage’ his martial arts skills.
It serves instead as an appetizer building up the tension, constantly switching from the ground to the air, and back again to keep the plot moving along nicely.
Cage as Poe, holds every scene he’s in, looking as larger-than-life as the domineering cons, matching one liners, and in our next glimpse at Cage the action hero, trading punches.
The ‘face off’ between Poe and psychopath Billy Bedlam is made challenging as it takes place in the plane’s underbelly making effective use of the cramped setting. Some squatting is called for, but there is plenty of technically rich fight action, including the quintessential arm-breaker leading to a heartbreaking finish!
Carnage at Lerner Airfield
If the wait seems a bit long for the pinnacle action scene in which Nic Cage unleashes his fighting prowess, have no fear, it soon ends and the payoff is well worth the wait.
The action is split in a number of segments all happening simultaneously – the very definition of organized chaos! There’s barely enough time to breathe as the cons and national guard troops shoot it out, and Poe battles through Columbian henchman to get to his ailing friend.
Amidst all this chaos, nobody’s noticed a mass murderer has gone on walkabout. Poe’s fight with the Columbians packs in the best bits of the trailer plus a few vintage moves that includes that oh-so painful-looking arm breaker. A little bit more of Poe’s fu skills on show would’ve been welcome, but what is served up here makes for a satisfying main course.
Viva Las Vegas
The action gets crazier nearer the finale and once again, the plane turns into a testosterone-laden melee as Poe wastes no time taking on the cons to, as he put it earlier, ‘save the f****** day.’
Scenes featuring Poe decimating the cons with punches like hurting bombs, knee strikes, and kicks that look as if they would stun an elephant, ramp up the entertainment and action ante blending urgent tension with daft humor.
The plane crash into Las Vegas remains one of the most spectacular stunts put to film and you guessed it, there’s little time to breathe before Poe, yet again, gives chase (this time with Larkin in tow) to battle ‘The Virus’.
This explosive finale has everything action fans want to see, hear and experience; from crashes and explosions, to motorbike chases, and hand-to-hand combat on moving emergency vehicles. Fun, and exciting to its satisfying end which despite the need for more fight fu, still leaves fans highly entertained.
‘Con Air’ is one of those live-action examples of an iconic, timeless classic. It might seem dated in places but there is plenty for multiple generations of action fans to enjoy.
Nicolas Cage’s development and portrayal of Alabama-born Cameron Poe is somewhat old-fashioned but his take on the quintessential southern gentleman makes him highly likable and sympathetic to his plight.
John Cusack’s Vince Larkin offers something for the more socially-aware generation with views that would have him labelled ‘woke’ today.
It is very much a testosterone-fest with the few female characters relegated to most traditional roles. Rachel Ticotin however, even when spending much of the film shackled, shines as the hard-nosed prison guard. The scene chewers and show stealers of the film are without a doubt the heavyweight thesps John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, and Steve Buscemi as the cons.
The core of the film’s enjoyment lies in its explosive actions, and kick-ass one liners which, although cheesier than a supermarket deli, are good fun and memorable.
Scott Rosenberg’s tight, and taut script plays on the ‘Die Hard on a …’ troupe beautifully and with Simon West’s knack for great visuals, makes other films of its ilk look understated. The action is a balanced mix of explosive shootouts, aerial tension, crash landings and of course, some slick fight fu courtesy of Mr Cage’s chiseled form, and smooth-yet-deadly skills.
It really does leave you wanting to see more of him fighting one-on-one with more combat talent displayed, however, if it meant trimming some of those iconic moments and character interplays, then its bite-sized fight action is enough to whet the appetite for the ‘un-caged’ action that follows.
The fact that ‘Con Air’ doesn’t take itself seriously – a veritable fasten-your-seatbelt-and-enjoy-the-ride experience – is perhaps why the film has stayed the course and will continue to do so with Cameron Poe saving the day for probably another 25 years…
- “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I have the only gun on board. Welcome to Con Air.” – Cyrus Grissom
- “Put the bunny back in the box”. – Cameron Poe (to Billy Bedlam)
- “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by observing its prisoners.” Dostoevsky said that… after doin’ a little time.” – Vince Larkin
- Not only did you not save this dude’s life, you made best friends with Cyrus the damn Virus!” – Baby O
- “Sorry boss, but there’s only two men I trust. One of them’s me. The other’s not you.” – Cameron Poe
- Simon West told an interviewer in 2014 that he would do a sequel “if it was completely turned on its head. Con Air in space, for example—a studio version where they’re all robots, or the convicts are reanimated as super-convicts, or where the good guys are bad guys and the bad guys are good guys. Something shocking. If it was clever writing, it could work.” The best thing about this idea is that it’s clearly not too insane for Nicolas Cage to say yes to it.
- ‘Con Air’ is real. The Justice and Alien Transportation System (JPATS) is a US government agency charged with the transportation of persons in legal custody among prisons, detention centres, courthouses, and other locations. It’s primarily used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and also assists military and state law enforcement.
- Nicolas Cage trained with kickboxing legend Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez to hone his martial arts skills used in the film including his famous spinning hook kick.
- John Cusack is also adept at Kickboxing and can lay claim to his Sensei also being none other than Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez. The two filmed a fight scene together in the action comedy ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’.
- Effects specialist Phillip Swartz died during filming, when a rigged plane fell and crushed him. The film is dedicated to his memory.
- Nicolas Cage filmed both ‘Con Air’ and ‘Face Off’ simultaneously. Both films were released within a few weeks of each other.
- In order to build his rock-solid physique for the role, Nicolas Cage underwent a rigorous weight training regimen. Combined with a strict diet he reduced his body fat to just 3%.
- Cage was often seen lifting weights on set, doing sets in between takes.
- The scene where Poe is exercising in his cell features all of the actor’s exercises he undertook as part of his training for the role.
- John Malkovich wasn’t cast as Cyrus Grissom until just days before production began.
- Kenny Bates makes up one half of the duo of stunt coordinators bringing the action to life. He is a record-breaking fall specialist setting records for the longest fall in ‘Die Hard’ – 36 stories – and then ‘Star Trek V’ featuring a fall down the mountain El Capitan at 45 stories.
- In 1993 Bates was given an award for Scientific and Technical Achievement for his development of the innovative Bates Accelerator / Accelerator System.
- For stunt coordinator Steve Picerni, stunt work is a family business. His father is Charles Picerni, a legend in the business with a 6-decade long career.
- Highlights of Steve Picerni’s work includes ‘Roadhouse’ and ‘Daredevil (2003)’