Con Air: An Ode To American Earnestness (And Bad Hair)

Cameron Poe inadvertently kills a man in slow motion with the heel of his hand in self defense. Now Cameron is in trouble. Poor Cameron. He was getting mugged! What was he supposed to do?! He learned that move while serving in the military! Doesn’t that count for something?

Well, actually it does — because of his kill-you-in-slow-mo-with-the-heel-of-his-hand military moves, the judge says Cameron is a “deadly weapon” and he has to be incarcerated for seven to ten years. So much for being a decorated soldier, fucking loser. Poor Cameron indeed.

The years pass by in which Cameron writes a bunch of letters to the daughter he’s never met, does a lot of handstand push-ups in his cell, befriends Bubba from Forrest Gump and refuses to cut his hair. But guess what? Cam’s got parole and now set to be a free man. He’s goin’ home to Alabama, baby!

But first, he has to survive the trip back. It’ll be aboard a plane solely devoted to transporting convicts — ranging from drug offenders to a psychotic John Malkovich (our main villain). Not the most pleasant of rides. But Cameron is stoic. He can deal with this.

Little does Cameron know, John Malkovich and his bad-guy prisoner posse have a secret plan: They want to take over the plane. And they do.

And there you have the premise for Con Air.

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Look, it’s no secret that Con Air isn’t the strongest of movies. In fact, I’ll admit it’s kind of bad. And just a quick Google browse will show you that there are plenty of pieces written about Con Air being someone’s guilty pleasure and I’m kind of late to the party with this. But most people just enjoy its excess, its B-movie-ish brilliance.

I say there’s more to it than that.

Can we admit that the premise is pretty intriguing? Sure it’s schlocky, but it’s a solid starting point: A dude only wants one thing and the only way he can achieve it is by surviving a trip in a confined space with a bunch of deranged, bloodthirsty criminals. Could easily be a horror movie.

It’s a premise rife with potential but does the movie fulfill it? Not really… With a few tweaks and a little more self-control, perhaps. But to me, whether it lived up to it or not isn’t as important as the potential itself.

The potential of the premise echoes the potential of the rehabilitated Cameron Poe. He has a clean slate. A free man’s life waiting to be lived.

Cameron had been living the American Dream before his arrest — finally home from serving his country, happily married to Monica Potter, and expecting a baby daughter. He was seemingly on top of the world — and it was all ripped away from him. Jail was his rock bottom and he had to arduously climb his way back up to grasp that American Dream again.

And he does it earnestly, just like Con Air itself. There’s a refreshing lack of cynicism and self-awareness in this movie. (Malkovich and Nic Cage were perhaps aware of what they were getting into, but they have fun with it, leaving cynicism at home. To a certain extent, John Cusack, too.)

The filmmakers are the ones who lack any self-awareness and it’s the best thing they have going for them.

They’re really going for it here, really trying their hardest. It’s pure, uncut American earnestness. Their effort, while not necessarily hitting the mark, is endearing — and I think that’s key. Because I’m not really an action movie junkie. To be honest, I’m more partial to romcoms. So this truly isn’t like a, “Oh, I just love big explosions, man, fuck yeah, let’s blow some shit up!” type of guilty pleasure. There’s just something extra about this one that stands out for me.

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And I think you can chalk it up to how hard it tries. It’s admirable. While I don’t think they were totally conscious of it, the filmmakers were going after their own American Dream with this movie, their own idea of success. And in doing so, they created a movie that’s a metaphor for the American Dream.

All American citizens, even prisoners (rehabilitated at least), deserve a chance at achieving a successful life. That’s what we’re told, right? And that’s what the movie is reiterating.

The movie’s stance on prisoners is an interesting one. It asks you to root for certain prisoners, reminding us that not all convicts are purely evil. A lazier action flick (which is saying something because this one certainly has its moments of laziness) would just have us assume all prisoners are the bad guys. This movie reminds us it’s not so black and white — there are prisoners like Cameron and diabetic Bubba from Forrest Gump that deserve a second chance.

On top of that, the prisoners are consistently smarter than the authority figures. In fact, it’s partly because of a couple of officers’ ignorant stubbornness regarding bringing a gun onto the plane that the whole evil convict takeover is successful.

If the perception of the criminal justice system is atypical of a movie like this, the imagery of the climax is also a bit surprising. After one hell of a trip, the convicts crash land their plane onto the Vegas Strip. Glorious explosions rock the casinos, presenting us with a symbol of American capitalism going up in flames. For an action movie — which is, like, Hollywood’s most capitalistic, money-making genre — this symbolism is unusual, to say the least.

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And if capitalism is being blown up, that would seem to go against the idea of this movie as the American Dream. Because what is the American Dream if not an embrace of capitalism? To gain more wealth and material things? Sure, that’s valid. But I think this movie has a different idea of what the American Dream could be, a much more simplified, stripped-down version.

And you see that in the final sequence of the film. Surrounded by the glitz and flashing lights of the Vegas glut, a battered Cameron ignores it all — his eyes reserved only for his wife and daughter. He makes his way over to the women in his life, Trisha Yearwood crooning on the soundtrack, and after some awkward hesitation and an offering of a birthday present to his daughter (a dirty stuffed rabbit that somehow survived the trip), the family finally embraces and Trisha’s song crescendos.

Cameron achieves his goal and the film wants us to know that his goal should be our goal. (A kind of weirdly quick cutaway to John Cusack longingly watching them hug seems to confirm this. He’s a stand-in for us — we should be looking at them longingly, too.) It’s all totally hokey, yeah, but the message seems to be that what truly matters is the loved ones by our side. That’s the Dream.

One could argue I’ve tried a bit too hard to make something out of nothing here with Con Air. And maybe that’s the truth. At the end of the day, there’s no denying that the movie plays like it was made to be watched interspersed with commercials on (fittingly) USA Network on a Sunday afternoon. But come on. Doesn’t that sound so deliciously American? Doesn’t that sound like the dream? Sometimes you need that Sunday afternoon basic cable movie. Somebody’s gotta make ’em, right? And somebody’s gotta watch ’em.

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