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Con Air: Unrated Extended Edition

Film critics are generally regarded as snobs who heap praise on pretentious art movies and tedious foreign releases while dismissing popular entertainment as "popcorn movies" or worse. And it's true that there are reviewers who take just such a stance, showing off their Film Studies educations by habitually referencing John Ford or Sergei Eisenstein and turning up their noses at movies drafted purely for mass-market consumption. Ultimately, it all comes down to taste — and it can be argued that films should be judged not on a level playing field but individually, on their own merit. Zoolander shouldn't be assessed with the same yardstick as, say, Cries and Whispers. Both are good movies, but their purposes are radically different. Instead we might ask if a film reaches what it sets out to accomplish, and in the field of testosterone-drenched, guy-centric action flicks, producer Jerry Bruckheimer is the genre's master. Having masterminded a catalog of movies that reward ticket-buyers' expectations of car chases, shoot-outs, helicopter crashes, propane-tank explosions, and some de rigeur deeply felt male bonding, they are virtually a category unto themselves. Top Gun, Bad Boys, Crimson Tide, The Rock, Armageddon, Enemy of the State, Pearl Harbor, Black Hawk Down, and National Treasure are just a handful of over 60 films in the Bruckheimer oeuvre. And while each has a memorable quality, it's 1997's Con Air that's the most deliciously self-conscious Bruckheimer picture. With a cast of actors usually not seen in action flicks, a script that hits every expected plot point then piles on eight more, and a bombastic conclusion that's so huge, loud, and silly that it leaves the viewer giggling at the audacity of it all, Con Air is a perverse take on the traditional action film, offering over-the-the-top Bruckheimer goodness with an ironic wink at the audience.

In one of cinema's most efficient ten minutes of exposition, we meet Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), a U.S. Army Ranger who gets into a fight with some drunk stereotypes in a bar on his first night home. Using his mad Ranger skills, he kills them barehanded and, as he has the worst defense attorney in history, goes to prison for eight years. In a Ken Burns-style voiceover we hear Poe's letters home to his wife and infant daughter, read in his abominable southern accent, as he does push-ups and pull-ups and other impressive feats of strength in his cell while his hair grows long. On the day of his parole, he's loaded onto a plane for transport to another prison and comments aloud that "somehow they managed to get every creep and freak in the universe on this one plane.'' Those freaks include ostensibly insane multiple murderer Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich), black militant Nathan "Diamond Dog" Jones (Ving Rhames), mass murderer William "Billy Bedlam" Bedford (Nick Chinlund), rapist "Johnny-23" Baca (Danny Trejo), and a mysterious serial killer that's trundled onboard in restraints Hannibal Lecter-style known as "The Marietta Mangler." Coordinating the flight on the ground is U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack), who butts heads — of course! — with asshat DEA agent Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney). Malloy's got a man on the flight undercover in hopes of getting information out of a talkative inmate, and he doesn't like ceding authority to college-boy Larkin. But as soon as the plane is wheels-up, the group of cons swing into ridiculously well-planned action — they take over the aircraft with the intent of off-loading the first group of prisoners as scheduled and then continuing on to a desert airstrip where they'll escape in a waiting jet. Poe just wants to get home for his daughter's eighth birthday party, but he's torn — his cellmate (Mykelti Williamson), the one who saved him during a fiery prison riot, is also on board and in need of an insulin injection. So Poe rejects a chance to leave the plane at the first stop, choosing instead to stay with the hijackers, try to help his friend, and hopefully foil the airborne escape.

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The first hint that Con Air is a different take on the standard action picture is the film's cast — Cusack and Malkovich aren't the sort of actors that one associates with this sort of thing, after all. Cage followed his 1996 Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas with the one-two punch of The Rock and Con Air, and he still seems like an odd choice for this role. And after the introduction of "The Marietta Mangler," chained, masked and gagged, transported via armored vehicle under heavy guard, he turns out to be Steve Buscemi. The script, credited to Scott Rosenberg (High Fidelity), naturally includes all of the standard Bruckheimer conventions. There's the sappy pop song that accompanies Poe's moments with his wife ("How Can I Live Without You" sung by Trisha Yearwood), the not-quite-homoerotic love between men contrasted with the whose-is-bigger conflicts of Poe/Cyrus and Larkin/Malloy, all presented alongside gunplay, explosions, and gleefully creative deaths. But Rosenberg adds a dose of wit to the exercise, making this outing a tad funnier and more knowing than the condescending foolishness of most action films. Malkovich, playing light comedy with occasional outbursts of menace, gets many of the best lines, as when he wryly tells Johnny-23, "I despise rapists. For me, they're somewhere between a cockroach and that white stuff that accumulates at the corners of your mouth when you're really thirsty." Cage gets some good stuff too, and his command to Billy Bedlam when he manhandles the stuffed toy intended for Poe's daughter ("Put… the bunny… back… in the box…") is the movie's most memorable moment. The final 10 minutes is outlandish, with no fewer than three false endings after the plane skids for what seems like several miles down the Las Vegas strip, taking out neon casino signs, cars, and passersby in its wake and finally offering the spectacle of Cusack battling Malkovich hand-to-hand atop a speeding firetruck. This is movie entertainment in its most basic form, a film that not only delivers what it promises but dishes up far more than any audience could reasonably expect.

Buena Vista Home Video's new "Unrated Extended Edition" of Con Air clocks in at 122 minutes, adding seven minutes of footage to the already R-rated film. Was the additional mayhem absolutely necessary? Sure, why not — considering that the film in its original release was already an exercise in unrestrained excess, more is always better. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is very, very good, extremely clean and sharp with excellent color saturation. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround audio is equally fine, delivering every turbine spin-up, gunshot, and explosion while presenting nice, clean dialogue. Sadly, there are no extras save for Buena Vista's usual cavalcade of trailers — a commentary track by Cage, Cusack, Malkovich, Rhames, and Buscemi would be a dream come true, but no such luck. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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