Nicolas Cage in: Con Air

Con Air

Released in 1997 ▪ Review posted March 2, 2014

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Gloria Steinem

Like so many great things, it started accidentally. Casually.

“Want to watch a Nicolas Cage movie?” I asked my friend Matt.

“Sure, what were you thinking?” he asked.

I replied, “Con Air or The Rock.” The truth was, I needed a break from Cage’s obscure films. I didn’t want to be surprised. I needed safe, well worn territory.

“I’m downloading Con Air right now, come over.”

With that I killed my second Anchor Steam, crawled into a hoodie, and wandered to Matt’s. Late February is a pleasant time of year in Silicon Valley. I arrived about twenty minutes later with a fresh six pack in hand.

For a while we just hung out, catching up on each other’s lives and bitching about people at work. We worked on plans to visit New Orleans in April. Camaraderie ensued. Gradually the beers disappeared and I found myself Quite Drunk.

Quite Drunk is a specific state for me that exists between Tipsy and Hammered. I can’t operate a car, but I retain enough dignity to be mistaken for a gentleman. My focus also stays intact. It is, arguably, the perfect state for a movie like Con Air.

Matt reached for his iPad and started the movie. Titles began flying across the huge television. We were still talking (something about a pair of red Yeezys that he said he could sell for $6,000) when I noticed that something about the movie was off. We kept chatting. Now Nic was on screen, defending Maria Bello, except it didn’t sound like Nic.

“Is this from iTunes?” I interrupted.

“No, I got it somewhere else.”

“Oh. That might explain why it’s dubbed in German with no subtitles.”

Embarrassed, he tried to find an English track, but it didn’t matter. It was too late. I was already lost in the movie.

“Let me get another copy,” he offered.

“No. Leave it. It’s…it’s meant to be like this.”

The next 123 minutes of my life are a story that will take some time to tell.

I don’t feel bad for watching the whole movie in German. Like I said, the plot is familiar territory. Really, if anything, the German dub helped me to discover three new things about Con Air: there is no way to conceive what is going on without dialogue, John Malkovich sounds gay when you think about it, and Nicolas Cage relies too much on his voice.

In Con Air, the viewer is expected to believe that an airplane full of the world’s most dangerous criminals gets hijacked by the convict cargo in an elaborate attempt to escape. This remains obvious even if you can’t understand what the actors are saying, but you lose the nuance of the characterization.

You can figure out that Nicolas Cage is in prison for killing a guy. You’re pretty sure he said something mean before Nic attacked him, but you don’t know what. You know one guy has diabetes, but you’re not sure how that’s important. You know John Cusack (who looks unnaturally young and out of place the entire film) is trying to stop them…but you’re not sure how. All the richness is lost: the slow burn of Cage’s pseudo-Elvis, the craziness that oozes from Danny Trejo, and worst of all, Steve Buscemi just gets lost in the shuffle.

John Malkovich, on the other hand, is enhanced. When he’s shouting in German, he suddenly seems evil and intimidating. That’s when I noticed for the first time just how stereotypically gay his voice sounds. It’s not a bad thing by any means, but without John Malkovich’s cadence, lisp, and line delivery, the character of Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom gives the movie a rougher, more Die Hard–like feel.

And then there’s Nic. He walks around this movie basically expressionless. Without the benefit of understanding the dialogue, you have no reason to root for his character. He seems like a plain old contemptible convicted killer, perhaps slightly less evil than his co-passengers. It’s not a pretty sight. He looks like a heroin addict with that stringy hair. He seems mopey.

Put the dialogue back and suddenly you have the Con Air I fondly remember. This shows that Con Air is actually a zany, dialogue-driven character study. The plot is contrived so that actors like Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle, and Renoly Santiago can run around having fun on screen for a couple of hours. It’s a modern day Poseidon Adventure. It’s wonderful, unbridled characterization for characterization’s sake. This is a rare movie world where from the onset Cage seems like the tamest thing on screen.

Cage rises to the challenge of playing the biggest role in the movie, but keeping it mellow. It reminds me of H. I. McDunnough but it may be even more appropriate here than in Raising Arizona. Cage’s Cameron Poe is intent on one thing only: getting back to his daughter. This clears the path for the crazier characters to focus on the escape and chew the scenery. It’s a courageous and generous acting decision on Nic’s part.

Watching Con Air through black, red, and yellow-striped lenses, the film makes much more sense. It was gratuitous, yes, but it was also self-conscious. It was prime Cage-ploitation. It laid the foundation for him to become the action hero he never should have been, so that he could later become the parody of himself he was always meant to be. That right there is a good Nicolas Cage movie.

How was the movie?
Das Flugzeug von Sträfling
How was Nic Cage’s acting?
Did his performance make the movie worse?
Nein—he let others make it better