Story Pile: Con Air

Con Air is a 1997 action movie that gets to be beloved. I don’t know why. I don’t know what could justify it. I mean, every part of this movie is stupid from the base of its soles to the top of its head and the whole wretched exercise uses that deliberate stupidity as a sort of performative figleaf for the things this movie very clearly thinks about how reality should be.

This movie is a beautiful example of verisimillitude, a long word we use to describe the impression of being real. Lots of times people will ask for ‘reality’ in their media, but they don’t want that – they want things to seem real. People don’t want realistic violence or sex scenes or relationships, especially since those things are both much faster and much slower than they think. It is a movie that somehow constructs a reality that’s meant to be ‘you know, like real things’ yet somehow every single thing this movie tries to show you tends to be just wrong.

There’s an existing, easily digested and presented critique of how Con Air is an extremely right-wing movie with a pretty dismissive vision of everything that isn’t Rugged Individualism. How easily grasped? Well, in 2015, Cracked’s show Today’s Topic did an episode in list form, which ran down the simple ways in which the movie is about a conservative man crushing the diabolical aims of Obama’s America (thanks to Obama’s time travelling powers that he didn’t use to stop 9/11 (thanks Obama)). Problem is, at least, for me, that this critique is pretty damn solid. It’s not that you can’t find a leftist interpretation of things in this movie, because that’s how media interpretation works, but that you don’t have to work very hard to look at this movie and go: Oh, right, conservative people fucking love prisons.

Let’s run through the checklist real quick.

  • This movie opens with a literal propoganda spiel for the US Army Rangers
  • Nicholas Cage plays Cameron Poe, a ostensibly Alabaman member of said Army Rangers
  • He is assaulted by the only three Alabaman rednecks who don’t love the military more than life
  • They specifically claim that it’s guys like him that’s why they lost Vietnam, because spitting at soldiers because of Vietnam was definitely a thing in 1997
  • These guys then accost him outside the bar, which again, definitely happens
  • He then instantly kills one of them with his hands that are DEADLY WEAPONS
  • His lawyer tells him to plea as part of a self defense deal
  • The judge ignores that and then imposes a ten year sentence because he’s not a ‘normal people’
  • Poe then serves his sentence in prison, and is on his way to being released, but he’s being shipped to his parole location via a plane called The Jailbird

This is the opening five minutes of the movie, by the way, and you can see how much of this is stupid piss right? Not just Nic Cage’s let-be-generous-and-call-it-an-accent, but the things that have to be true here. This is not a story of a thing that happens, this is white Americana oppression porn. The idea that a US Veteran who has a violent altercation at a bar the day he gets back home from the barracks is given special judgment, because judges can just do that, and lawyers are just that bad and there’s no appeals court and you just get into prison and endure it perfectly, unchanged by the culture you live in for ten years? It’s the same root motivation of dudes in their twenties and thirties entertaining that only the best proper tragedy would turn them into Batman. It’s the idea that ‘if it were me, I would simply not [be an affected product of the carceral state].’

It gets worse from there as the movie introduces characters that are meant to fill out the horrorshow of monstrous criminals that Poe is going to oppose. One of them is a black supremacist, a real terrifying force in the American landscape, who bombed an NRA meeting which is, I must say, just hilariously fantastic. Diamond Dog wrote books while in prison, and the disdain the movie uses to describe that, or that the book that represents the experiences of a prisoner is successful, is also comical. They do know that he’s not going to make any money off that deal, right? Like, he legally can’t.

We get Billy Bedlam, about whom we know almost nothing except that the problems in his life are the fault of women (his cheating wife, his mother) or sexual abuse. This isn’t stuff he says, this isn’t him making excuses, this is other people describing him. It doesn’t matter overmuch because he does not matter and does not express much personality or interest beyond being someone who isn’t afraid of Cyrus.

The third big name in the plane is Cyrus The Virus, a man who at the age of 39 has served 25 years in prison. That is to say, he is a man who at best was incarcerated at the age of 14, and simply remained there, forever, and it speaks of him as a ‘product of the system,’ but also: How did a white kid get incarcerated in an adult prison at the age of 14? You might have heard of that kind of thing, but it’s typically black kids, being oversentenced for low-end nonviolent crimes like marijuana possession.

We’re also introduced to the number of guards who are stupid and incompetent — even to the point of blowing themselves up. They’re literally so stupid they kill themselves for not being able to follow two instructions from other sources. The DEA are also stupid and incompetent, too, and also, they can deploy military-scale helicopters to shoot down planes, a thing that… I don’t think has ever happened in American history over domestic territory? But don’t worry about it, that’s [government], and government, as a bloc, you know, they can deploy helicopters to blow up planes. Easy. No problem.

We have the stats on these helicopters and this plane, by the way. Those helicopters cannot catch that plane.

Poe is also a great big shithead. The dude is positioned to constantly shift around in how literally anyone’s idea of how to do things is wrong, because he’s the person who is right. He’s right at hurting people, he’s untouchable by weapons, and he’s right about how people shouldn’t be doing things. Cameron Poe is a Joshua C Shepherdchrist by any other name, a character so blatantly crafted to be White Republican Jesus that I’m shocked at how his name doesn’t have a J in it anywhere.

Let’s look at this, though, in terms of how this movie gets everything it wants to do wrong. Not just the way that uh, the justice department does not ship prisoners like they’re cargo in a Vietnam-era cargo plane with enough freedom to do things like attack one another. Let’s focus instead on the important plot point of Diabetes. Baby-O has diabetes. He needs an injection, and if he doesn’t get an injection, he’s going to die immediately. It’s a clock that ticks throughout the story that keeps Poe from just abandoning the whole thing. Poe eventually gets him his insulin, as he’s in diabetic shock and while he’s trying to fight Danny Trejo. This stops the shock and he shortly recovers.

There is almost nothing in this description of diabetes that’s not, somehow, wrong.

You don’t have syringes in first aid kits, that’s not first aid. If he’s in diabetic shock, he needs sugar. If he’s in diabetic shock, he’s probably unconscious, not able to fight. And when you inject him with insulin, that… let’s pretend it makes him magically recover, but then, probably not that fast. But it doesn’t matter, because this isn’t about him, this isn’t about his diabetes. He doesn’t exist, he is a ticking clock that shows us how great a dude Poe is. It’s not like you know what Baby-O’s crime is, after all. That would be needless detail. You know he’s not a parolee like Poe is, but you don’t know why he’s on the Scum Airlines on the way to the newest Supermax (god, why are we making more of those).

Poe interrupts both the fight with Johnny 23, and Johnny’s attempted rape of Guard Bishop, of course, to beat up Johnny 23, while shouting Don’t treat women like that, which you might recognise as teaching him a lesson. Lots of different ways to interrupt that scene, like hey, you could have had Bishop kill him (since uh, you did build this movie around the idea that people in handcuffs are still very dangerous). This chanted lesson is weird as hell, because there’s no earthly way that Johnny 23 cares. He’s not a rapist because nobody’s disciplined him. The purpose behind that scene is to give us a pop, to make us go ‘oh yeah, take that!’ which look, it’d be great I suppose if Johnny 23 wasn’t so comically evil that even the other criminals hated him. Really, the question is ‘why is Johnny 23 even alive in the first place’ if Cyrus the Virus is such a terrifying monster.

Of course, he’s not – it’s funny watching this movie with its limited reserve of fucks trying to deliver dialogue that sounds like it’s from inside a hardened prison. Danny Trejo could have blown the doors off of that.

Baby-O, anyway, then gets shot and is almost going to die, and has a crisis of faith. That faith that was, you know, so important, to his very important characterisation. Don’t worry though, Poe is here to have a heroic moment, heroically and save his friend’s belief in God.

That also gets to be a testament to one of the things I didn’t really notice when I watched this movie years ago. The action in this movie is really terribly directed? Like, it’s funny that this movie is renowned for being good at ‘action’ and that makes its relative stupidity shake out, but it’s really bad. All the scenes of Poe fighting, like his battle with Billy Bedlam, the fight in the opening, and his heroic taking of the plane all require breaks in continuity or action, and just some hilarious movements that are not fighting. When Billy is holding his face, Poe grabs his arm at the wrist and elbow and just… lifts him up? The foley crew do him a favour by making it sound like he’s broken something but uh, you need to bend the arm back to get that kind of sound, not just move it with it.

There’s – look, I came really close to making a video about this to just demonstrate the way this movie fucks up the simple task of getting a jacked-to-hell Nicholas Cage look like he’s actually fighting a dude, and you know, not breaking the line of action. It carries through to other sequences, too – when Poe is marching up the plane to take it, a con smashes a glass, then somehow doesn’t threaten him with it? They wave the bottle right at his face in the camera, and then when we cut back, that con’s got his arm wide with the bottle in it, so Poe can step right up into his grill, knock the hand aside, and punch him.

This shouldn’t be a problem, but man, this is really basic stuff. Poe Jesus walks his way into the cockpit, and like, someone shoots him from point blank range and just grazes his arm. It’s like he’s literally being chosen by god, like… uh oh yeah that’s what he said he was going to do.

Christ.

Anyway, the plane crashes shortly after this, but only bad people are hurt by it. The good people who survive do so despite any precautions they don’t take, and bad people die even though they do take precautions. The survival on the way down, strangely, is seemingly, again, literally divinely protected, as if someone was singing, oh I don’t know, he’s got the whooole world in his hands over the whole scene in a way that’s completely hackneyed and then culminates with a bunch of jackpots going ding ding ding.

Which all happens.

Something else that’s strange, something that lingers around as I write up my notes, is that these prisoners weren’t… doing anything? They weren’t aiming to achieve nothing, they weren’t getting ready to join some sort of militant army, they were largely talking about escaping being imprisoned. Nobody was gloating about the possibility of doing anything specific, just – hey, meet up with the drug lord and then bail. The heroic work of Poe was as much to oppose their freedom as it was to prevent some kind of harm.

Con Air is a right wing white guy oppression fever dream, an aspirational parable about how the world could work better and be handled if there was just the right white guy with hands that were deadly weapons on the spot to solve problems caused by these minorities and prisoners and terrible comical criminals. It is pro-prison, in this weird way that the idea of these prisons have these super dreadful people who are fundamentally stupid and extremely threatening, even if you never see them do anything bad.

At the time this movie was made, roughly 4% of the US population was in some way or another the responsibility of the US department of Justice in some variety of probation or incarceration. This number hasn’t decreased with population – one way or another, of America’s 320 million people, about 11 million of them, as of 2016, are incarcerated, under probation, or otherwise subject to the criminal justice system’s control. This movie looks at the plight of the imprisoned in America, and wants you to think of them as deeply fundamentally evil, people who are either monsters, or okay with monsters.

Oh, and Garland Greene is such a non-threatening nothing.

By the way, I for a long time thought this movie was directed by Jerry Bruckheimer, but he’s just the producer. This movie was directed by Simon West, the creator of the Never Gonna Give You Up music video and why did you click that?

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