Air disaster

Bruckheimer production comes complete with all his Con-temptible traits

It's a sleazy kind of audience manipulation, and one that informs all of Con Air. In one scene, a corpse is dropped from the plane, plunging toward a small town below: The bit is set up and played as humor, even after it leads to the probable death and maiming of several innocent townsfolk. It's the sort of gag that would work in a slapstick comedy, but it's woefully out of place here--if the film regards its characters as cartoons, why should we get emotionally invested in anyone's survival?

Con Air's solution to that is the second-most overused screenwriting trick in the book: Cameron is in this fix because of his devoted friendship to his black former cellmate, played by Forrest Gump's Mykelti Williamson. (Since you're wondering, the most overused trick is having the villain kick a dog: Don't let your screenplay leave home without it.) Recent Hollywood action movies would really be at sea without the reliable convention of the Black Buddy: His death motivates all revenge; his peril justifies all irrational action; his existence validates the hero's virtuousness. In most movies, in fact, he is characterized so shallowly that he clearly exists for no purpose beyond that validation. The scenes between Cage and Williamson are infused with a mawkishness that reveals their essential cynicism. These aren't characters with a relationship; they're game pieces with a plot device.

While everything in the movie conforms to that cynicism, few are as blatant as the character of Garland Greene (Steve Buscemi), an insane serial killer obviously patterned on Jeffrey Dahmer. The Greene character feels like an afterthought, shoehorned in either to set up a possible sequel or to add another touch of "humor." He is introduced in the kind of getup that will forever be associated with Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, and his eventual fate seems like a weak replay of that film's ending (which, it must be said, was just as cheaply, reprehensibly sardonic as most of Con Air).

Greene's presence opens up more plot and motivation problems than all the other characters put together. A few amusing jokes are supposed to make us believe that criminal genius Cyrus would unleash a horrifying wild card like Greene while desperately executing a complicated escape plan. You betcha.

And, for the sake of an irrelevant suspense scene--which should have some effect on the escape plot but doesn't--a little girl suddenly shows up in a house in the middle of nowhere near a practically abandoned airfield; there are, of course, no parents in sight. Where the hell did she come from? Are we supposed to care? Heck, no: Con Air needs some pawns to generate a smidgen of extra suspense, so why not just materialize an innocent out of thin air?

What's most distressing about this type of filmmaking is that, in many ways, it actually works. If that single end justifies any and all means, then this is excellent craftsmanship, at the very least. I was often cheering along with the rest of the audience; but that very fact made me feel sullied by the end. It's bad enough when other people feel admiration for Il Duce because of his alleged improvements in Italy's railway efficiency; it's worse when you catch yourself agreeing.

Con Air.
Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Ving Rhames, M. C. Gainey, Steve Buscemi, Mykelti Williamson, Colm Meaney, Rachel Ticotin. Written by Scott Rosenberg. Directed by Simon West. Opens Friday.

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