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.

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 be 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 virtue. 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 characters are as blatant as 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; 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 conjure a child 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 I felt 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.
Written by Scott Rosenberg; directed by Simon West; with Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Ving Rhames, M. C. Gainey, Steve Buscemi, Mykelti Williamson, Colm Meaney, and Rachel Ticotin.


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