Here’s the thing about reviewing Con Air: it’s impossible to define it in terms of “good” or “bad” filmmaking.
Take, for instance, its Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score. 55% is about what I’d expect from this film. It so divided critics that there’s apparently an equal amount of goodwill and disgust for this film. Look at the legacy of its soundtrack’s centerpiece, Trisha Yearwood’s version of LeAnn Rimes’s “How Do I Live.” Like the film for which it was penned, the song has a divisive legacy. In 1997 it was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Raspberry for Best Original Song and Worst Original Song respectively. Sadly (?), the song lost in both categories.
So, no, a typical review will not do for this particular film. What will be more interesting, at least for me, is to figure out why and how this film can seemingly be two things at once: namely, the best action film ever or a prime example of Hollywood’s contempt for basic intelligence.
Looking at the evidence, I will determine whether or not this film is bad on purpose, or if there’s a reason John Malkovich and John Cusack have all but disowned it. In short, I believe this film is bad to the point of being camp. Not “campy.” Pure, unadulterated “camp.” But unlike the queer-centric camp of old, Con Air is something new, something preposterously fantastic. Con Air, my friends, is straight-boy camp.
To prove this, however, I’ll first have to define what “camp” is.
In general, as previously stated, camp is generally associated with queer culture — drag, Cher, and the films of John Waters. It is ostentatious and bombastic. It’s so bad that it’s good. In a New York Times interview, “Notes on ‘Camp’” author Susan Sontag describes a campy mood as one that is “serious about the frivolous [and] frivolous about the serious.”
So, the question now becomes, does Con Air fit these criteria? Well, it’s honestly hard to say.
On the one hand, it is certainly serious about its ludacris content. Take its inciting incident. The film asks us to wholeheartedly believe that former U.S. Army Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) would spend even half a minute in a holding cell after such a clear-cut case of self-defense.
It expects us to believe that a staunchly red state like Alabama — where the law allows the use of deadly physical force in the case of usually non-violent crimes like burglary — would convict a VETERAN of murder after a man pulled a knife on him and his PREGNANT wife. If you believe that setup, I have a lovely beach house in Idaho to sell you.
No, Con Air doesn’t treat Poe’s conviction with winks and nods at the silliness of it all. It asks us to sympathize with a man caught in a bad situation that’s about to get worse. Allegedly, producer Jerry Bruckheimer loved the script but wanted to add “more heart.”
What he got were scenes so saccharine that I actually identified more with Cyrus the Virus (Malkovich) as he’s mocking the letters Poe’s daughter sent. The heart-on-its-sleeve approach the film opts to take is perhaps why it is so cheesily campy, or, at least, why it can be perceived as being so.
Unlike other action flicks of the 80s and 90s, this film seems to want to be more. It wants one-liners, boom-bang shootouts, and even a “hilarious” dose of transphobia like those other films might have. It also wants teary eyes in the crowd as Poe finally reunites with his daughter.
How can you square these impulses? You can’t. Not unless you’re willing to say that it is straight-boy camp — camp made for the “drinking Mountain Dew and eating Doritos in front of 7/11 at 10pm” crowd.
Con Air is straight-boy camp because it never laughs at its audience for wanting to see things as hokey as a stuffed suit’s prized Corvette being dropped from an airplane and crushed. It provides viewers with the, um, fun(?) of being on a plane full of freshly escaped convicts rocking out to “Sweet Home Alabama” thinking they’ve finally gotten away.
It ends not with one, but with two separate climaxes. One where a plane lands on the Las Vegas strip, and another where the leads get into a motorcycle/firetruck chase wherein the good guys get into a shootout/water-hosing with the main bad guy.
If the movie fails at certain camp criteria, it’s because it refuses to pick apart its “serious” scenes.
We aren’t meant to laugh at Poe and his family reuniting. We aren’t meant to laugh at Cage’s dramatic line readings, and especially not at his actually hilarious “I’m gonna show you God does exist” scene. It’s all really supposed to be oh-so-serious.
In a movie where Pinball’s body hitting an elderly couple’s car is played for laughs, and Malkovich seems to be having the time of his life, what are we to do with these disparate and seemingly incongruent parts?
The only thing I can say is its camp, or at least something akin to it.
Con Air exists as a divisive film because it puts as much attention into being cheesy as it does to being sincere without ever letting on which tone it actually aims to achieve. Witness: the heavy metal score and its juxtaposition with an admittedly fine vocal performance by Yearwood; the tonal whiplash of asking us to watch a man’s head get crushed by a hydraulic press and then weep tears of joy at Poe’s meeting his daughter for the first time; the requiring us in general not to think Cage’s Snoop from The Wire accent is peak comedy. Combine that with its heteronormativity, its explosions, and its essential Boys Club mentality, and you have a prime example of what I would call straight-boy camp.
Then again, there’s always the chance that this movie just sucks. At this point, I hardly even know myself.
Con Air is available on Amazon Prime Video.
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Wayne Broadway is a writer from Sacramento, CA. He writes fiction, non-fiction, and is currently obsessed with Pomeranians.