The ’90s Action Thriller Epic Can’t Be Made Today

By Robert Scucci | Published

If you haven’t watched Con Air (available on-demand through Apple TV) since its 1997 theatrical release, and only remember it through rose-colored glasses, we have some great news for you: it still holds up. Though it goes without question that a movie of this caliber simply couldn’t be made today, there’s something to be said about how over-the-top yet satisfying this action-packed Nicolas Cage movie truly is.

Like every other Nicolas Cage action movie from this era, Con Air is unrelenting, boasts an audaciously unbelievable premise, and requires you to suspend an unhealthy amount of disbelief to enjoy it.

Con Air Perfectly Executes Cliché ’90s Tropes

But despite Con Air’s shameless ability to defy the laws of physics and police protocol, its expert pacing makes every single minute count. It goes without question that this film is a cluster of overused tropes, but they’re executed so flawlessly that you’ll find yourself awestruck by how well they work in this context. The premise for Con Air is as simple as it is ridiculous. Nicolas Cage’s Cameron Poe is an honorably discharged U.S. Army Ranger Sergeant who is up for parole after serving an eight-year manslaughter sentence. But even his incarceration was honorable, as he was imprisoned for accidentally killing a man who was trying to assault his wife.

The Bad Guys

That sounds like a simple enough plot to move things along, but instead of taking a shuttle back to his home in Alabama to reunite with his wife and daughter, Poe is boarded onto a repurposed Fairchild C-123 Provider called The Jailbird. The Jailbird is a converted prison transport plane, and it’s populated with some of the most violent criminals to ever walk the Earth so they can be transported to a supermax prison. If you’re wondering what could possibly go wrong from this point forward in Con Air, we’re here to tell you that the answer is a resounding “everything.” The criminals in Con Air are all caricatures of the criminally insane. Through a montage sequence, we’re introduced to Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, “Billy Bedlam” Bedford (John Malkovich), John “Johnny 23” Baca, Joe “Pinball” Parker, and Nathan “Diamond Dog” Jones.” After The Jailbird is hi-jacked and makes its first problematic pit-stop, Steve Buscemi’s Garland “The Marietta Mangler” Greene, whose claim to fame is murdering over 30 people, joins in on the fun.

John Cusack As U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin

The real drama in Con Air doesn’t happen in the sky, however, but on the ground. When U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) gets wind of the hi-jacking, he’s immediately at odds with DEA Agent Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney). In most action films, this is the part where one agent flashes their badge and takes over the case. But Larkin and Malloy are both highly ranked officials with equal jurisdiction over the hi-jacking. As tensions rise on the Jailbird, and a power struggle among the convicts is made apparent, similar tensions manifest between the government officials as they scramble to locate and land the plane.

An Unlikely Alliance

nicolas cage

Con Air truly takes off when Larkin realizes that Cameron Poe is a badass with a heart of gold, and has single-handedly turned the violent criminals against each other. Poe is technically a free man, and wants to reunite with his wife, so he’ll do whatever it takes to get out of this ordeal alive. More importantly, he wants to meet his daughter, Casey, who he has only communicated with through letters he wrote while in prison. Once this unlikely alliance is formed, it’s only natural that a crash-landing on the Las Vegas Strip is imminent. From this point forward, Con Air assaults us with a third act that’s as explosive as any Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone movie.

Critics Are Torn Over Con Air

Upon its theatrical release, Con Air earned an impressive $224 against its reported budget of $75 million.

Critically speaking, Con Air received mixed reviews, and currently has a 58 percent critical score on Rotten Tomatoes. The biggest issue that critics had with the film was how it shifted from sincere to cheesy at the drop of a hat. But those who disagree with the critics celebrate Con Air for the exact same reasons, and suggest that these tonal shifts are what makes it such a unique film in the first place.

In other words, Con Air is a self-aware movie that shamelessly leans into every single action-movie trope that has been established and done to death up to this point, which only adds to its charm. It’s almost as if Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich, and John Cusack are winking at the audience the entire time.

It’s also worth noting that the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is 75 percent, which just goes to show you that some moviegoers just want to hear some snappy one-liners and watch things blow up without having to think about it too much.

Con Air Is On AppleTV+

Nicolas Cage

Simply put, if you’re a fan of over-the-top action movies, then you need to stop what you’re doing right now, put your seat in the upright position, and beam Con Air straight into your brain as quickly as possible.