Nicolas Cage outrunning one of many explosions in Con Air
Every now and then, I really enjoy watching a big, dumb, noisy Hollywood action film. They’re like big bowls of movie ice cream with all the toppings: totally irresistible and more than a little silly. Fun as they are, one would not want one’s entire cinematic intake to be made up of American action movies any more than one would want to eat nothing but ice cream sundaes.
For no reason at all, I recently pulled from the shelf my Blu-ray (you read that right) of Simon West
’s 1997 film Con Air
. It is as over-the-top and explodey as I remember. Big and silly and utterly nonsensical, Con Air
is fun to the max. I don’t care about its politics or its plodding stupidity or the impossibility of most of the physics it depicts. Con Air
is actually kind of a great movie because it is so relentlessly, willfully entertaining.
Probably the chief reason that Con Air
is so entertaining is that it is so very blunt. What I mean is that the film is the antithesis of ambiguous. Viewers need not wonder about the outcomes of any of its events, or about why its characters behave as they do. Events, characters and rationales in Con Air
are always thoroughly clear and the opposite of multivalent. Few actions in the film can be read in more than one way, and that’s by design. In fact, Con Air
is a two-hour exercise in narrowing down meanings of every possible type.
Did I mention that, in Con Air, a plane lands on the Las Vegas Strip?
The best examples of the film’s bluntness are in its characterizations. With the possible exception of two of the three leads, each character in this film has a single defining characteristic that explains every single one of his or her actions (mostly his; only a couple women even have speaking parts in Con Air
). To start with the exceptions: Our hero, Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage, still one of my favorite actors), who has been unfairly imprisoned, is honorable, brave and loving. The main villain, Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, is ruthless and intelligent. And that’s about as complex as characters in this film get.
Every other character in the movie has just one character trait. Billy Bedlam (Nick Chinlund) is dangerous (his name is a clue); Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney) is an arrogant asshole; Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo, another of my favorite actors) is a rapist, and that’s it. In the case of Trejo’s character, the single-trait characterization is so blunt as to be laughable. Raping women is almost the only thing he talks about; when left alone with a handcuffed female prison guard (Rachel Ticotin), he immediately begins sexually assaulting her.
Con Air is many things, but progressive is not one of them.
Even more simple-minded and, frankly, problematic is the characterization of the minor character Ramon (Renoly Santiago), whose sole trait is that he’s gay — cartoonishly, offensively gay. As soon as he has a free moment, Ramon somehow finds and dons a purple dress; he also spends a good deal of his time mincing, gyrating and speaking with a lisp. In the universe of Con Air
, there is no room for subtle characterization, an approach that often results in regressive stereotypes. Though the characterizations of Ramon and others are clearly offensive, I think that a case can be made for their having been created without malice. Quick and ugly characterizations are easy to grasp, and they tend to reduce, rather than complicate, a story.
Indeed, in that way, Con Air
’s simply sketched characters unexpectedly echo those of the vaudeville stage. In many a comic and dramatic sketch in that medium, characters were entirely defined by simple visual means that instantly communicated everything the audience needed to know. A character with a large proboscis was understood to be Jewish; a drunken character was understood to be Irish; a bumbling character was understood to be German. (Yes, the “clumsy German
” character was a staple of the vaudeville stage.) While such stereotypes are obviously offensive to modern sensibilities, their purpose was not to offend but to communicate character traits instantaneously. The reason was simple: Vaudeville was a “variety” medium, with acts that lasted only a few minutes. There was no time to create rich, nuanced characters; quick-and-dirty stereotypes would have to do.
is similar. No one watches this film to delve into the psychological complexities of its characters; we watch this film because it has creative action scenes and exploding planes. Though the film is two hours long, it can ill afford to waste time with such trivialities as characterization. Better to deal with it quickly and get back to the exploding planes.
John Malkovich as Cyrus "The Virus"
More generously, we can characterize Con Air
not as blunt but as maximally clear — a quality for which, I think, the film should be admired. It’s not just in characterization but in visual storytelling that Con Air
allows nothing to be misunderstood. Pick nearly any scene — even the complex action scenes — and you’ll find that it presents story information in a way that is both vivid and easy to grasp.
A scene late in the film offers a great example. In Con Air
’s climactic chase scene, Poe and Vince Larkin (John Cusack) zip through Las Vegas on motorcycles in an attempt to bring down a frickin’ fire engine on which Cyrus is making his getaway. A couple of motorcycle cops join in the chase, and Cyrus quickly dispatches them using the closest tool at hand: a fire hose. West gives us a series of shots that communicate exactly
what we need to know and nothing else. In quick succession, we see a medium-long shot of the cop’s motorcycle pursuing the fire engine, a medium shot of Cyrus grabbing the fire hose, a close-up of Cyrus’ hand turning the knob to release the water, a medium-long shot of the water bursting from the hose in the direction of the cop, and a quick close-up of the cop’s helmeted head as he is blasted with a jet of high-pressure water. Then a long shot shows us the poor cop being slammed off his bike and landing roughly on the roadside.
Every vehicle in Con Air becomes a moving death trap, fire engines included.
What I admire about this sequence, and several similar sequences in the film, is that it represents a kind of stylistic analogue of the film’s narrative approach. That is, West uses shot composition and editing to give us only
what we need to know, paring back any and all extraneous details that would render the depicted actions ambiguous. (The sequence also tells me that West had been watching Hong Kong action films before making Con Air
, as this kind of editing is one of the strongest hallmarks of such films.) In this way, the style and the story of Con Air
are uncommonly complementary.
One doesn’t necessarily expect smart, stylish filmmaking in a big, messy Hollywood action film. But such films — and Con Air
is a great example — are directed and assembled with tremendous skill. Above all, this is filmmaking skill that’s put in the service of maximizing clarity of story and forcefulness of action, two things that Con Air
does exceedingly well.