Saturday, June 28, 2008

Welcome to Con Air

Last weekend on TNT (We Know Drama!), I caught the second of back to back airings of that quintessential, dramatic, exploration of the human condition known as "Con Air". After watching it in its complete entirety for the first time since it came out on cable (can you believe it's been about ten years?), I have to admit it's probably my all time favorite Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay blockbuster. I would be completely wrong, however, since, as I later found out, this was a Jerry Bruckheimer/Simon West effort. Yes, despite all the explosions, notable stars, improbably simplistic storyline, and blockbuster earnings synonymous with a Bruckheimer/Bay production, this summer blockbuster masterpiece was actually directed by the auteur of such box office heavyweights like "The General's Daughter" and "When a Stranger Calls".

My revelations about this movie however were not just limited to the final credits. Watching it carefully again through the older, possibly wiser, eyes of 2008 Victor as oppose to 1998 Victor I picked up on a few interesting, confusing, and sometimes downright troubling aspects of the film I missed as a high school freshman. Just a few things.

One minor thing I noticed about the movie right from the opening minutes is when Nicholas Cage's Cameron Poe and his wife, Monica Potter, start slow dancing in that bar in Alabama before all the events that lead him to prison for 5 or 6 years, Trisha Yearwood's version of "How Do I Live" is playing in the background. The Diane Warren penned classic was written specifically for the film in 1997 and led to the great LeAnn Rimes/Trisha Yearwood "How Do I Live" rivalry (the Bird vs. Magic of female country ballad showdowns) that led to Rimes' version getting the charts victory but Yearwood's version winning the head to head Female Country Vocal Performance Grammy. What bothers me is the song is being played from the jukebox, which means that in the fantasy universe of Con Air, "How Do I Live" came out sometime around 1990-1991. If the song came off non-diegetic, off screen you could just chalk it up as background music, but once it's part of the scene it becomes a total anachronism. Not a huge detail but now I have to go into the movie with the mindset of it being an alternate universe or another planet that is exactly like earth except for that one detail.

One big thing I noticed about the movie, unfortunately due to my recent experiences as a first year law student, was how completely wrong the legal issues were in the film. I immediately recognized that Cameron Poe had a textbook case of self-defense. The scene where he's being confronted by the three rednecks is staged like a poorly written criminal law essay question. There was no provocation on the part of Poe to incriminate him and the camera shows that there was an obvious, imminent deadly force being used by the one redneck with the knife; which is the only time you're allowed to use deadly force in kind. The whole hands as deadly weapon thing is also a total movie thing. The wikipedia criticisms page echoes my sentiments and adds a few other apparent legal fallacies in the film (no parole for federal inmates, the question of federal jurisdiction versus state court) along with additional beefs for the improper medical portrayal of Baby-O's diabetes (I'm sure Wilford Brimley is furious).

On the topic of Baby-O, the sympathetic prisoner friend of Poe; I wondered what sort of horrible crime he committed to be there in the first place. Oh sure it's easy to think he's a swell guy and pull for him to get the insulin on time and admire the heroism he shows towards the end of the film when he takes a bullet for Poe, but as they laid out on the beginning of the film, the plane is supposed to be full of the worst people in the prison system. Despite the nice guy routine and the diabetes, Baby-O must have at least committed some sort of serious crime, to be locked up in a maximum security prison. Or perhaps there was just a special cell block at San Quinten for hard luck cases where good people got raw deals?

The movie's real strength is in its motley cast of inmate villains (because it's sure as hell not coming from Nick Cage's boring Southern fried hero). The best movies are the ones like this where a group of characters come into a crazy situation with elaborate and wild back stories (and nicknames!). You got the evil rapist (Johnny-23), evil mass murderer (Billy Bedlam), the evil black militant (Diamond Dog), the evil arsonist (Pinball), the evil serial killer (Garland Greene), the evil criminal mastermind (Cyrus the Virus), that transvestite guy, among many others. As crazy as the idea of John Malkovich being in a big summer blockbuster action movie (how come no one ever mentions "Con Air" in "Being John Malkovich"?) he actually pulls of the villain role perfectly. He's charismatic, ambitious, badass, and unflinchingly villainous to the core. And how can you tell he's going to be unwaveringly sinister? The filmmakers use the oldest trick in the book: Bald Guy With Facial Hair.

It's about as subtle as making him wear all black and having him wring his hands menacingly while ominous background music plays.

The film's ending at first glance is inline with all other summer blockbuster picture endings, with the hero triumphing over all the seemingly impossible odds. All the other criminals are either dead or captured and Poe gets to meet his darling wife and cute kid and he gives her the rabbit (on her birthday no less!). However when Poe is shaking hands with U.S. Marshall Larkin on the destroyed Vegas Strip and admiring a job well done, isn't some guy going to point out everything else that went completely wrong? Like the dead undercover DEA agent? Or the dozens of National Guardsmen and police officers that got ambushed at the airfield? Or the dead prisoners that had nothing to do with any of this? The death of a that drug kingpin that they were trying to interrogate and investigate? The civilian casualties involved when a plane horrifically crashes into a crowded major city? The millions upon millions of dollars of damage to the Las Vegas Strip? The fact that Steve Buchemi's incredibly dangerous and demented serial killer is now set loose again? But, hey as long as Poe got to meet his family on time.

Despite all the criticisms I do want to set the record straight. While it seems that all these questions and flaws should make me not the movie as much, somehow I end up liking it even more! A prerequisite for an exploding blockbuster action flick is a healthy amount of confusion and implausibility. Too much will make it unwatchably incomprehensible to enjoy, while too much realism will drain it of all its fun. For a piece of high concept fare like "Con Air" there was a perfect balance. Maybe in another ten years my thirty something self (gross) will find some other unnoticed facet of this cinematic gem.

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