Apart from not knowing to quit while it's ahead, "Con Air" provides quite an exciting flight prior to its crash and burn. Hiply written and cast, and shrewdly positioned dramatically to exploit both the allure of lawlessness and the appeal of virtue, this first official solo effort by producer Jerry Bruckheimer is as sure-fire commercial, and just as elaborate, as anything he did with his late partner, Don Simpson.

Apart from not knowing to quit while it’s ahead, “Con Air” provides quite an exciting flight prior to its crash and burn. Hiply written and cast, and shrewdly positioned dramatically to exploit both the allure of lawlessness and the appeal of virtue, this first official solo effort by producer Jerry Bruckheimer is as sure-fire commercial, and just as elaborate, as anything he did with his late partner, Don Simpson. High-octane actioner will fly the distance at dizzying B.O. altitudes.

Scott Rosenberg’s insidiously clever script draws upon any number of time-tested dramatic conventions, most importantly the “Dirty Dozen” collection of hardened criminals who have nothing to lose, and the stalwart loner hero on an arduous odyssey home to his family, a man who walks the thin line between good and bad and can play one off the other, not unlike Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Viewers can thus have it both ways, reveling in the baddies’ crazed antics while remaining certain that their surrogate will pull them, as well as himself, through in the end. And pic has the further disarming quality of knowing how to kid itself.

British commercials and musicvid director Simon West, making his feature bow, literally races through the exposition. In a matter of minutes, he disposes of the information that Army ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), unjustly imprisoned for eight years for a killing that was basically self-defense, is a man of honor and righteous values, and that the plane on which he catches a ride home to see his wife and little daughter, the latter for the first time, is a U.S. Marshals Service transport on an “all-star flight” with a passenger list consisting of “every creep and freak in the universe” being delivered to a new facility.

Chief among them is Cyrus (The Virus) Grissom (John Malkovich), a certifiably insane but brilliant master criminal commanding enough to lead such other three-time losers as murderous black militant Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames), the violence-prone Billy Bedlam (Nick Chinlund) and fearsome career rapist Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo).

Almost at once, the prisoners are able to take over the plane, a slow, bulky C-123K prop that first heads for Carson City, where it unloads three men, but takes on several more, including legendary serial killer Garland Greene (Steve Buscemi) and a good ol’ boy pilot (M.C. Gainey) who may or may not know how to fly this crate.

Moving things along with tremendous velocity and great verbal and thespian punch, pic keeps any number of levels of tension going during the course of the flight: Will Cameron, whose resourcefulness and smarts the ever-observant Cyrus quickly comes to admire, be found out as a parolee and not a hardened criminal? Will Diamond Dog remain subservient long enough for everyone to reach their destination? Will anyone be able to prevent Johnny 23 from raping the female guard (Rachel Ticotin) who’s cuffed inside the plane? Will Cameron find a way to give his diabetic prison buddy Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson) the insulin he needs? And will drag queen inmate Sally Can’t Dance (Renoly) ever find a dress he can change into?

On the ground, U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) does his best to keep up with what’s going on in the air, and to prevent short-tempered DEA agent Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney) from blowing the hijacked plane out of the sky. When Cameron, in one of the film’s show-stopping scenes, manages to get a message to Larkin by dropping a body out of the sky over downtown Fresno, the agent races to a remote desert airfield, where Cyrus has arranged to rendezvous with a south-of-the-border drug lord who will supposedly jet them out of the country.

Film begins shifting into overdrive at this point, as a fierce battle between the cons and authorities at this airplane graveyard yields a surfeit of fiery explosions and hurtling bodies. Remarkably, the surviving desperadoes manage to get the plane aloft once again, this time to land it — where else — right on the Vegas Strip.

One can see the picture deflating right before one’s eyes during this utterly overdone and needless climax-upon-a-climax, as it saps the high spirits it has maintained through most of the flight; big scene of the plane crashing into a casino is the worst in the film, with furious overcutting unable to disguise bad continuity, varying special effects techniques and inconsistent airplane speeds. Protracting things even further with the groan-inducing villain-who-won’t-die gambit, and finally with a cornball reunion scene of Cameron with his family, merely makes matters worse.

But the good stuff is strong enough to carry the day. Rosenberg’s sarcastic, tough-guy dialogue is full of lean-and-mean one-liners, and the superbly cast actors know how to milk them for all they’re worth.

Unlikely action star Cage, very buff, walks the fine line between self-preservation and selfless heroics with great aplomb, keeping the audience with him at all times.

Malkovich and Buscemi, both playing characters apparently vying to join the Hannibal Lecter ranks of mad genius killers, stand out among a stellar lineup of baddies portrayed by the formidable Rhames, Gainey, Trejo, Chinlund, Jesse Borrego and Dave Chappelle, among others.

Stylistically, film becomes more frenetic as it goes, and West’s compositions lack the strength and definition of the best action directors. Taken individually, such important elements as the score, editing and sound work are quite over-the-top, but production values are huge overall, and one can scarcely argue that, before the plane gets to Vegas, everything doesn’t jell in a very effective way.

Con Air

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Jerry Bruckheimer production. Produced by Bruckheimer. Executive producers, Chad Oman, Jonathan Hensleigh, Peter Bogart, Jim Kouf, Lynn Bigelow. Directed by Simon West. Screenplay, Scott Rosenberg.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), David Tattersall; editors, Chris Lebenzon, Steve Mirkovich, Glen Scantlebury; music, Mark Mancina, Trevor Rabin; art direction, Edward T. McAvoy; visual consultant, Deborah Evans; set design, Barbara Mesney, Daniel R. Jennings; set decoration, Debra Echard; costume design, Bobbie Read; sound (Dolby digital/DTS/SDDS), Arthur Rochester; visual effects, Dream Quest Images; visual effects supervisor, David Goldberg; stunt coordinators, Kenny Bates, Steve Picerni; associate producer, Bates; assistant director, Mike Topoozian; second unit director, Peter Bloomfield; second unit camera, Ueli Steiger; aerial camera, Dean Lyras; casting, Victoria Thomas, Jeanne McCarthy, Matthew Barry. Reviewed at the Village Theater, L.A., May 29, 1997. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 115 MIN.

With

Cameron Poe - Nicolas Cage
Vince Larkin - John Cusack
Cyrus (The Virus) Grissom - John Malkovich
Garland Greene - Steve Buscemi
Diamond Dog - Ving Rhames
Duncan Malloy - Colm Meaney
Baby-O - Mykelti Williamson
Sally Bishop - Rachel Ticotin
Tricia Poe - Monica Potter
Pinball - Dave Chappelle
Swamp Thing - M.C. Gainey
Devers - John Roselius
Sally Can't Dance - Renoly
Johnny 23 - Danny Trejo
Francisco Cindino - Jesse Borrego
Billy Bedlam - Nick Chinlund
Ginny - Angela Featherstone
Sims - Jose Zuniga
Casey Poe - Landry Allbright

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