Air Disaster

Bruckheimer's production shows all his Con-temptible traits

It's a sleazy kind of audience manipulation, and one that informs all of Con Air. In one scene, a corpse is dropped from the plane, plunging toward a small town below: The bit is set up and played as humor, even after it leads to the probable death and maiming of several innocent townsfolk. It's the sort of gag that would work in a slapstick comedy, but it's woefully out of place -- if the film regards its characters as cartoons, why should we care about anyone's survival?

Con Air's solution is the second-most overused screenwriting trick in the book: Cameron is in this fix because of his devoted friendship with his black former cellmate, played by Forrest Gump's Mykelti Williamson. (Since you're wondering, the most overused trick is having the villain kick a dog.) Recent Hollywood action movies would be at sea without the reliable convention of the Black Buddy: His death motivates all revenge; his peril justifies all irrational action; his existence proves the hero's virtue. In most movies, in fact, he is characterized so shallowly he clearly exists for no purpose beyond that of validation. The scenes between Cage and Williamson are infused with a mawkishness that reveals their essential cynicism. These aren't characters with a relationship; they're game pieces with a plot device.

While everything in the movie conforms to that cynicism, few are as blatant as the character of Garland Greene (Steve Buscemi), an insane serial killer obviously patterned on Jeffrey Dahmer. The Greene character feels like an afterthought, shoehorned in either to set up a possible sequel or to add another touch of "humor." He is introduced in the kind of getup that will forever be associated with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs; and his eventual fate seems like a weak replay of that film's ending (which, it must be said, was just as cheaply sardonic as most of Con Air).

Greene opens up more plot and motivation problems than all the other characters put together. A few amusing jokes are supposed to make us believe that criminal genius Cyrus would unleash a horrifying wild card like Greene while desperately executing a complicated escape plan. You betcha.

Another irritation: For the sake of an irrelevant suspense scene -- which should have some effect on the escape plot but doesn't -- a little girl suddenly shows up in a house in the middle of nowhere near a practically abandoned airfield; there are, of course, no parents in sight. Where the hell did she come from? Are we supposed to care? Heck, no: Con Air needs some pawns to generate a smidgen of extra suspense, so why not just materialize an innocent out of thin air?

What's most distressing about such filmmaking is that, in many ways, it works. I often cheered along with the rest of the audience; but that very fact made me feel sullied by the end. It's bad enough when other people admire Il Duce for his efficiency. It's worse when you catch yourself agreeing.

Con Air.
Directed by Simon West. With Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich and John Cusack.
Rated R.
115 minutes.

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