Con Air marked Jerry Bruckheimer’s first solo production following Don Simpson’s death but, while he has now moved more into the sphere of the family film, here the Reagan-era action film values that typified their previous collaborations still linger ‒ a celebration of excess and an excess of patriotism. If the opening of a film trains its spectator, then the start of Con Air is key ‒ a montage of war scenes, American flags, stirring music, and voice-over commending the Army Rangers for never leaving a fallen man behind ‒ and the film threatens to become a rambling parable for military intervention.
One of those Rangers, the all-American Cameron Poe, kills a man in a bar fight (“It’s because of pussies like you we lost Vietnam!” one of them tells him when he refuses to react). We know the other man had a knife; the jury doesn’t. As if in guilt or doubt over its hero’s innocence, Con Air repeatedly revisits and recreates this moment, pitting Poe against worse and worse foes on an airplane taken over by convicts to assure us that yes, extra-legal violence is often necessary. This even spills over to John Cusack’s Vince Larkin, a clean-cut, Dostoyevsky-quoting, self-described “thesaurus boy”, namby-pamby liberal government agent. Larkin’s true nemesis is not so much the convicts who take over the plane but DEA Agent Malloy, and Larkin not so much defeats him as becomes the same but better, stealing Malloy’s car to speed to Lerner Airfield and intercept the plane, just one man and his gun.
The racial politics of the film are equally initially dubious: the “skinny crackhead Negro” Pinball is pitted against the Native American “Chief”; a black supremacist (his politics are never too clear) whose book made the New York Times bestseller list is made subservient to a “white boy on a power trip”; a Latino rapist (the inimitable Danny Trejo) threatens a Latino guard; and a black diabetic is at death’s door for lack of insulin (his one opportunity to get off the plane is taken away as all the prisoners expected for transfer are white). They are all defeated (in the case of the diabetic Baby-O and Guard Bishop, saved) by a man who enters the prison system an Army Ranger and leaves it as white trailer trash who needs a haircut (“Hey, my Mom lives in a trailer!”). Poe even exclaims “Don’t talk to me, I’m better than all of you!”
Importantly though, his efforts to help resolve the situation are constantly misinterpreted on the ground. The hero of Con Air could have easily been a prison guard on the plane or Vince Larkin on the ground or even the DEA Agent smuggled as a passenger (as in a Steven Segal film perhaps it would have been). But, ultimately, Poe is wrong, he’s no better than them - despite his sympathetic backstory, his parolee status (“hitching a ride home”), all his efforts to save his friend - he’s treated exactly the same as any other passenger on the plane, both when boarding and when everything goes to shit. Garland Greene, who appears first as a weird curveball then becomes comic relief, is key to this theme - what other blockbuster would ask you to root for a serial killer to escape from prison because, well, he’s a sort of Bukowski-esque artistic soul played by Steve Buscemi?
While the villains are nightmarish, cartoonish exaggerations of prisoners, Baby-O is in for an unspecified crime, perhaps another wrong place at the wrong time like Poe’s, and Greene is perhaps a Henry Lee Lucas-style victim of a forced confession rather than an actual serial killer (if we ignore the extended version of the film). For them, prison is hell; for Cyrus and his friends it’s a training ground and meeting place for bigger and better crimes. (Case in point: their takeover of the plane is financed by Cindino, a Colombian drug lord, whose illicit wealth is a by-product of the War on Drugs.)
Truffaut famously expressed the difficulties of making an anti-war film, that in cinema the act of showing something ennobles it (perhaps why films with the most to say about war are the ones that show little actual fighting: La Grande Illusion, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Johnny Got His Gun, Jacob’s Ladder…). Simon West similarly understands that no modern action film can avoid making violence entertaining and no modern American action film can avoid the individualism at the heart of the USA and the American Dream. (Even the action teams, such as the Impossible Missions Force or The Avengers, end up existing to facilitate one character’s heroism, be it Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt or Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man.) West pushes the individualism, the racism, the misogyny to excessive, unsustainable levels. The finale has the plane crash land in Las Vegas ‒ one of the many action set-pieces made uncomfortable in the wake of 9/11 ‒ America’s broken ideology coming home to roost in the most suitable city.
Douglas Sirk’s melodramas have long been critically re-appraised as ironic, and it’s only a matter of time before the same happens with 1980s-’90s action films, at which point Con Air will be a shining example.