Mayday

It wouldn't be completely fair to say that the hits produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer from 1983 through 1996 are stylistically interchangeable. But it wouldn't be so awfully unfair, either: A homogeneous, auteurial touch runs from Flashdance (1983) through Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), and Days of Thunder (1990) to last year's The Rock. (The same "touch" -- which is more like a grenade in the face -- also overwhelms the duo's one major flop, 1984's Thief of Hearts.) The team had a penchant for a glossy, hyped-up approach that reflected the influence of disco, MTV, and commercials.

That might not be such a bad thing in and of itself -- anyone who adores John Woo movies as much as I do can't be an enemy of polished, visceral stylization -- but Simpson/Bruckheimer directors such as Adrian Lyne, Tony Scott, and Michael Bay combined that style with some of the most manipulative, cynical storytelling ever to blast from the big screen.

After Simpson's death last year, I held out a certain pathetic hope that he was the one responsible for the worst tendencies of the duo's films. But if Con Air, Bruckheimer's first solo effort, is any indication, that hope was just critical folly. While tyro director Simon West fills Con Air with all the slam-bang action and well-honed wisecracks that were the more positive attributes of its predecessors, it brims even more with all their worst. Characterization is by the numbers; audience sympathies are manipulated with cold precision; style is often slathered on with no regard for context. In the midst of the film's generally nasty tone, the few moments suggesting actual emotional content are so clunky and unconvincing they only make the overall experience more distasteful.

Nicolas Cage stars as Cameron Poe, a hotshot soldier married to a beautiful, pregnant blonde (Monica Potter). The film's very first scene -- Cameron greeting his wife at the bar where she works -- is done in a gauzy, glossy manner that suggests beer ads and thirtysomething; the hazy lighting and vaguely dissociative camera movement keep us distanced from all the characters.

When Cameron is attacked by three rowdy drunks and accidentally kills one in self-defense, he is sentenced to a prison term so long that we can only surmise the judge was recently transferred to California from Tehran. While the opening credits appear, we are treated to an endless montage of Cameron's prison years -- accompanied by a narration of nauseating sentimentality -- as Cage reads Cameron's Prison Epistles to the Daughter He Has Never Met. (For no particular reason, the cellblock is designed and shot as though it were straight out of Blade Runner's futuristic Los Angeles slums.) By this time, even the dimmest audience member has probably gotten the message: Cameron may be a convict, but he is still a 24-karat golden paragon of human virtue.

After seven years our hero is granted parole. But in an impatient moment he agrees to fly home in a plane that is also transporting America's Most Hideous Felons -- these guys practically have neon signs on their chests -- to a new, super-high-security prison. In a plot development that wouldn't have seemed fresh even if we hadn't seen it five months ago in Turbulence, the bad guys manage to take over the plane.

Cameron pretends to go along with them, all the while trying to sabotage the escape plan. Meanwhile, back on the ground, U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) is also on the case, though hampered by a jurisdictional dispute with DEA asshole Malloy (Colm Meaney, unable to bring any credibility to his horribly written part).

Thanks to the psychotic behavior of criminal mastermind Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich), alleged black revolutionary Nathan "Diamond Dog" Jones (Ving Rhames), and crazed pilot "Swamp Thing" (M. C. Gainey), a long series of shootings, explosions, and collisions occurs. The big finale -- it's in the ads and trailers, so I'm not giving away any secrets here -- involves a crash landing in Las Vegas. "We can't make it to the airfield," Swamp Thing announces. "I'll have to land on the Strip," thus revealing himself as not only crazed but also stupid. Yup, big hunks of nice, flat, unobstructed desert on both sides of the Strip, but we better aim the sucker at the only really congested stretch within twenty miles.

To be evenhanded, the plot is otherwise relatively hole-free. Even though screenwriter Scott Rosenberg has to accept blame for the most irritatingly awful screenplay of the Nineties (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead), here he makes sure that we're always told who knows what and how they know it.

Still, what elevates Con Air from the merely banal to the truly offensive is its gleeful sadism. The filmmakers have employed an effective but repellent strategy that invites the audience to revel in human pain and find humor in what should be appalling. In essence, they make many of the worst villains somehow more likable than the others: When Cyrus blows a turncoat to hell 'n' gone, the viewers are positioned to find his revenge laudable and gratifying.

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