It is the generally held view among critics that Con Air is a bad movie, and they’re right. Everything about the movie is wrong, the plot is terrible, the characters are straight out of a particularly violent pantomime, and the action sequences are so overblown they would make Michael Bay blush. Yet among fans of the action genre Con Air is somewhat legendary, a movie that is so aware of its own ridiculousness that it almost seems like a parody, where incredibly talented actors (and Nicolas Cage) are reduced to exaggerated macho caricatures. None of the elements of Con Air should work together, an ultra violent story about some of the worst elements of humanity that is also tongue-in-cheek, in which truly disgusting and horrifying characters are not only likeable, but actively rooted for by the audience. And here’s the thing, it does work, all of it.
As a fan of the action genre, and a student of film analysis and cinematic expression, I find Con Air fascinating. Recently I watched the unrated extended cut, something that I wasn’t even aware existed and was utterly delighted to discover. The unrated extended cut adds almost six and a half minutes of extra footage, which had been cut to secure the films R rating. The extra scenes mostly encompass some extra one-liners (as if this movie needed more) and a subplot or two. A detailed look at the extra footage, in comparison with the theatrical version, can be found here.
Army Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) returns home after being honourably discharged. While Poe celebrates with his pregnant wife, Trisha (Monica Potter) they are attacked by three drunken goons. During the subsequent fight one goon pulls a knife, forcing Poe to use deadly force against him. Poe receives an eight to ten year prison sentence for killing the goon, and after serving eight years in San Quentin State prison, California, Poe is released to return home and meet the daughter he has never seen. In order to get there Poe has to hitch a ride on the Jailbird, a prison aircraft, as it transports some of the most dangerous criminals in the country to a new super-prison in Alabama. While on the flight the plane is hijacked by the prisoners, lead by Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom (John Malkovich) and Nathan “Diamond Dog” Jones (Ving Rhames) Poe has to save the day, with a little help from his prison buddy Mike “Baby-O” O’Dell (Mykelti Williamson) and US Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack)
The first section of Con Air is so improbable that the Con may as well be short for contrived. Poe is charged with manslaughter in what is clearly a case of self defence, yet pleads guilty after being convinced by his phenomenally stupid lawyer that doing so will get him a shorter sentence. The judge decides that for some reason military personnel are subject to different laws than everyone else, and so are not entitled to defend themselves when attacked because their military skills mean they might hurt someone. The suspension of disbelief is pulled like a Stretch Armstrong doll but there is just enough in the details to keep it from snapping completely, the only other person present when the goons attack is Poe’s wife and she runs to get help before the head goon pulls his knife. One of the other two goons picks up the knife as they escape, leaving no evidence or witnesses to testify that the dead man was armed. It’s also entirely possible to get a stupid lawyer (particularly if court appointed) and to have a prejudiced judge, but while having any one of these difficulties during your manslaughter case would be bad luck? Having ALL of them just seems like carelessness.
The next segment deals with Poe’s time in prison, which the unrated extended cut covers in much more detail. In the theatrical cut a riot occurs, which Poe ignores from his cell, and he and Baby-O bond over a mutual love of the pink coconut things that Poe’s wife sends in the mail (personally this always amused me, the seriously diabetic prisoner making friends with someone because they give him massively sugared confectionery) In the unrated extended cut we see Poe lying bloodied and losing consciousness as his cell burns during the prison riot. Baby-O pulls him from the flames to safety, badly burning his arm as he does so. Poe feels a debt of gratitude towards Baby-O for saving his life, and immediately invites him over for a BBQ in the future when Baby-O is released. Is it me or is inviting the guy that got badly burned while saving your life over to your house to eat charred flesh a tiny bit insensitive?
Poe and Baby-O are supposed to serve in direct contrast to the rest of the prisoners, who are considered to be the “worst of the worst” However the question of what it was that Baby-O did to earn his prison sentence and his spot in the new super-prison is never addressed. The film tries to present Baby-O as a good man, an ordinary man in a bad situation, just like Poe. However some of his reactions to certain situations are very strange. A particular example is his reaction as the plane is taken, guards are being slaughtered before his very eyes and his only concern is that his precious insulin may unwittingly be destroyed in the chaos.
Another example is his almost casual disregard for the prison guard Sally Bishop, who has been taken as a hostage by the prisoners. Both Poe and Baby-O know that leaving the plane at Carson City will mean leaving Bishop behind, and at the mercy of the convicts. She will in all probability be raped and killed, and Poe is clearly conflicted about leaving her to her fate, but Baby-O is completely unfazed and unsympathetic about her plight. His only concern is finding a needle with which to administer his insulin shot. The only time Baby-O does seem concerned about Bishop is later in the movie when another convict, serial rapist Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo) attempts to rape Bishop. Clearly only being cool with her rape and brutalisation when it wasn’t going to be done right in front of him Baby-O, at this point half dead from lack of insulin, attempts to stop him. Seriously, Baby-O must be pretty damn diabetic to be at death’s door after missing just one insulin dose. In fact if his diabetes is this serious then it’s amazing that the prison service delayed the administering of his insulin dose, which Baby-O claims was due the night before, and then arranged to give it to him when he was on a plane and far away from any medical assistance if a problem occurred.
With all of that said? The Baby-O/Poe dynamic does work. However this may be less to do with good writing and more the result of Nicolas Cage’s laughable attempt to play the ‘everyman’ Every other actor in this movie is clearly having a ball with their performances, milking the fun in their grotesque characters for all it’s worth. However Cage, long haired and doe-eyed in an attempt to make him look deep and poetic, seems to be taking it all incredibly seriously. The problem is that he can’t keep the trademark Cage insanity from shining through, and it bleeds into every aspect of his performance. He has the most dreadful Alabama accent, spending the entire movie slurring every line as if he drank an entire bottle of Jack Daniels before each take. Physically Cage is very credible as an action star, as evidenced by movies like The Rock and Face/Off, but he works best when playing a likeable but eccentric specialist rather than an ordinary man in the wrong place/wrong time scenario. Honestly Hollywood, whoever keeps casting Cage in roles that are supposed to be the everyday Joe really needs to have a word with themselves.
Another big change in the unrated extended edition happens during the sequence in which Poe tries to leave the plane at Carson City, and then changes his mind. In the theatrical version Poe is allowed to change his mind purely on the say of Cyrus “The Virus” because Cyrus believes Poe helped during the situation with the DEA agent (In truth Poe was trying to save the agent’s life) However in the extended scene the convicts Diamond Dog and Pinball recognise Poe, due to a reputation he apparently gained by killing a notorious inmate with his bare hands. This answers a question I had when I watched the theatrical version, if he was a model prisoner then why was Poe made to serve his full sentence instead of serving some and then getting time off for good behaviour? Killing a fellow inmate would certainly be frowned upon by the prison authorities, irrespective of the circumstances, so why did Poe kill this other convict? Well, as Poe informs the other convicts without a trace of irony, it was because the guy tried to take Poe’s black cherry jello, and no, apparently this is not a euphemism. Poe may have tried to claim self defence to justify killing the black cherry jello thief, but as we’ve seen so far his luck with that has not been great. It seems that, in the universe of Con Air, military veterans cannot legally act in defence of themselves OR their fruit flavour snack foods.
However in my opinion the biggest difference between the theatrical cut and the unrated extended edition concerns one character, serial killer Garland Greene. Played by character actor Steve Buscemi, Greene is introduced halfway through the movie, during the prisoner transfers at Carson City. He arrives in a padded prison vehicle, wearing Hannibal Lector style chest, arm, and face restraints. This suggests that the guards consider Greene extremely dangerous even when unarmed. The other convicts react with shock and fear when they realise who he is, further supporting his status as a formidable individual. His introduction to the audience, provided by Baby-O, reveals that he murdered over 30 people along the Eastern seaboard, and that his victims met their end in a manner that “…makes the Manson family look like the Partridge family” If this was real life a body count of over 30 victims would place Greene among the most prolific serial killers in the US. It’s a great and surprisingly understated performance from Buscemi, his pale and bug-eyed appearance, mild manner and unassuming demeanour, very convincingly fit the profile of a serial killer.
In the theatrical cut Greene spends most of his time on the plane, a quiet and perceptive figure whose dialogue consists of an interesting mix of insightful and disturbing remarks about the situation, characters, and life in general. As a character Greene exists to serve as a more subtle, less overtly aggressive kind of criminal than the other convicts, though no less dangerous for it. Greene’s other purpose is to contrast with Poe, and serve as a warning to Poe of what he may become as he kills. Both men are aware that there are only really a few steps between a man like Poe, who takes life because he feels he has no choice, and Greene, who does so because he enjoys it. Yet as an audience we are invited to identify with Greene, I dare you to listen to his remarks about semantics and NOT empathise with it even a little. We are drawn in by Greene’s observations, even as we are repelled by the snippets of information dropped about the nature of his crimes.
This becomes particularly disquieting when Greene wanders off after the plane has landed at Lerner airfield, and encounters a little girl playing by the trailer homes nearby. The little girl invites Greene to join her playing with her dolls, and it is clear that Greene wishes to kill her. She remarks that he looks sick, and Greene confirms this, telling her that there is no medicine for his illness. A little while later we see Greene return to the plane, clutching one of the girl’s dolls. The assumption is made that Greene has killed the child, however when the plane takes off after the battle with the police we see the little girl, alive and well, as she waves at the departing plane.
So how does the unrated extended edition differ from the theatrical cut when it comes to Garland Greene? And why did it change my entire perception of the character?
It all has to do with a convention that Con Air makes a great deal of use of, the idea that an audience can put aside any crime committed by characters as long as they didn’t see it, or those affected did something to earn their fate in some way. Though Greene is a serial killer, and very obviously dangerous, he doesn’t kill ANYONE during the theatrical cut even though he is given an opportunity to do so. Greene’s decision not to take the child’s life indicates to the audience that he may be capable of resisting his urge to kill, and of potential rehabilitation, and so later during the ending when it is clear that Greene has been overlooked during the recapture of the convicts the audience is unfazed. It’s perfectly fine that the man who drove through three states wearing a girl’s head as a hat is sitting in a Las Vegas casino playing craps, because WE didn’t see him kill anyone, even when he could have. However this is where things get tricky, because in the unrated extended edition? He DOES kill someone.
The death occurs after Greene is released from his restraints and seated on the plane, the camera pans to reveal that a prison guard is chained up across from him and Greene looks at the guard hungrily. A few scenes later Cyrus checks on Greene and the guard is now dead, apparently strangled. Cyrus asks “Feel better?” and Greene smiles, confirming that it was he who killed the guard. There is no reason at all for Greene to have killed the guard, he was restrained so he wasn’t any threat. Cinematically speaking the guard had not ‘earned’ his death in any way, he was an unnamed character who hadn’t done or said anything in the entire movie. It is a casual act of controlled violence, Greene kills the guard merely because he is there. However, it alters the framing of his decision not to kill the little girl. In the theatrical cut Greene enjoys killing, hasn’t done so for some time, is given an opportunity and chooses not to take it. In the unrated extended edition Greene wants to kill the child, but he doesn’t NEED to, because he has already very recently scratched that particular itch.
This makes the ending scene with Greene playing craps in the casino, having escaped his captors, that much darker. For the audience Greene is not the potentially salvageable character of the theatrical cut, in control and hoping to make better choices. No, the ending of the extended unrated edition sees a serial killer once more on the loose, free to continue increasing his body count, indicating to the croupier that he feels lucky, as the Lynyrd Skynyrd triumphantly plays.
There is a casual brutality about Con Air, a movie in which the worst examples of humanity kill and maim at will. Guards are tortured and slain and we see a man quite graphically burned alive. However the movie gives us reasons why it’s alright for an audience to be ok with all of it. Though the guards are good guys most of them are verbally and physically abusive towards the prisoners, and the burned man is a member of a crime family who tries to double cross the convicts. If Con Air had been played as a completely serious and ultra violent crime drama then it would have been horrendous to watch. As it is the sadism on display is muted by all the things that make it a great action film, the over the top performances, explosions, quips, and a flamboyant guitar driven score that gives several major characters their own signature themes.
Much like many of its characters, Con Air is saved from being mediocre, and even downright abhorrent, by a kind of charismatic outrageousness. The very ridiculousness that makes critics sneer at Con Air is the very thing that makes it an engaging and fun movie to watch. Scenes such as the overblown Jesus metaphor of Poe proving to a seriously wounded Baby-O that God exists by leaving him to potentially bleed to death, marching right up to the bad guys, and getting shot without so much as blinking in the process, make this movie so bad that it rolls right back around to being good. Con Air pulls you in with its silliness, winning you over with a kind of stubborn intensity. It is a movie that deep down in your heart of hearts you know you should be ashamed to enjoy, and yet enjoy it you will, because the movie will simply allow no other outcome. If you haven’t seen the unrated extended version it is definitely worth watching. It won’t answer most of the questions you had when watching the theatrical cut. What was Baby-O’s crime? Why was Poe sent to a prison on the other side of the country in the first place? Why does Johnny 23 take his shirt off while signalling to the others that the cops are coming? None of it matters, logic has no power in the universe of Con Air. However there are plenty more one-liners than in the theatrical cut, and honestly, what more reason to watch it do you need?
By now you must be asking, am I going to talk about the Oscar nominated song that this film cursed the world with like a deranged wedding DJ’s wet dream come into horrible, horrible being?
The answer is no, because how did I live without it? JUST. FINE.