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We Thought ‘Con Air’ Was Nicolas Cage Selling Out. It Was Actually a Glimpse of His Future

Released between ‘The Rock’ and ‘Face/Off,’ this critically derided summer smash never got much respect. Twenty-five years later, it feels like a road map charting the course for the rest of the Oscar-winner’s gonzo career

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

Maybe it was the hair. Maybe it was the tanktop and the bulging biceps. It wasn’t necessarily the Southern accent, because Nicolas Cage had done that before. But in the early summer of 1997, it was clear that there was something different about the Leaving Las Vegas Oscar-winner. Sure, he had starred in Hollywood movies prior to Con Air — including action flicks — but it was jarring to see one of America’s most exciting, challenging arthouse actors as Cameron Poe, a modest Alabama military veteran who goes to jail after accidentally killing a guy who’d been harassing him and his wife. It felt wrong. It felt like a sellout — a very 1997 thing to say.

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By the time of Con Air’s release, Cage (who turned 33 earlier that year) had been part of movies for nearly two decades. From a small part in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to roles in his uncle Francis Ford Coppola’s films — Cage didn’t perform under the Coppola name because he didn’t want to get by on nepotism — to being the romantic interest in the Oscar-winning Moonstruck, he’d watched his profile rise significantly in the 1980s. (And that’s not even mentioning his iconic H.I. in Raising Arizona or his nervy, cockroach-eating character in Vampire’s Kiss.) 

As the 1990s got underway, Cage’s reputation only grew. He was a mainstay of daring independent cinema, starring in Wild at Heart and Red Rock West, while occasionally nodding to the mainstream by doing bad comedies (Amos & Andrew) and okay rom-coms (Honeymoon in Vegas, It Could Happen to You). But when he won Best Actor for 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas — still one of the youngest men to ever win a prize that often feels like a lifetime-achievement award for a long career — it was a coronation for this actor’s actor, the sort celebrated for his intense, burning performances. A Nicolas Cage character could explode at any moment, or fall apart, reduced to tears. He was magnetic and dangerous, harking back to James Dean and Marlon Brando and other brooding geniuses whose demons fueled their brilliance. 

“Acting has always been a medicine for me,” Cage said in 2001. “It’s a way to get this shit out of my system. But you have to learn to control it, or it just invades you. You end up making yourself impossible to live with, and life impossible to live. I look back on those early days and wonder what was the matter.” Whatever it was, that was part of why he was adored.

So when Cage starred in The Rock a year after Leaving Las Vegas, it seemed strange but also intriguing. After all, his generation’s finest actor teaming up with Michael Bay, his generation’s most hyper-macho action director? That could be interesting, especially once Cage said that he wanted to “bring a more risk-taking acting style to these pictures.”  

And indeed The Rock proved to be a lot of fun, with Cage and Sean Connery battling a bunch of crooked Marines on Alcatraz. Part of the enjoyment was that Cage played a nerdy FBI analyst — he was more Bruce Willis than Arnold Schwarzenegger, except with those cool Cage quirks we’d come to love. The Rock felt like Cage fusing his edgy vibe onto Bay’s overblown aesthetic, a fascinating experiment that worked. And, hey, what was wrong with Cage doing a rollicking action movie? More blockbusters should be that much of a blast, and good on Cage for challenging himself.

The following summer didn’t feel the same, however. When we started seeing trailers for Con Air, we worried. This didn’t look challenging or a provocative mixture of high and lowbrow. It just looked dumb.

As film critic Keith Phipps writes in his forthcoming book Age of Cage: Four Decades of Hollywood Through One Singular Career, which traces the arc of Cage’s career, “Con Air paired him with [director] Simon West, who used the film as an opportunity to transition from videos and commercials to features. Like Bay, West brought the flash and frenetic energy of his past work to the action film. He didn’t, however, bring Bay’s command or consistency. Con Air is Bayhem without the vision — something that was already becoming the prevailing Hollywood action film aesthetic.” In other words, Con Air wasn’t a sequel to The Rock, but it sure seemed like a spiritual continuation — or, more accurately, an inferior copy. 

Con Air told the story of Cameron Poe as he endures eight years of incarceration for that murder, all the while writing letters to his loyal wife Tricia (Monica Potter) and his daugher Casey, who’s born right after he’s sent away. Early on, we understand that Poe’s a good guy. He stays on the straight and narrow while he’s in the pen — even when there is a large-scale riot going on all around him. He learns Spanish. He’s nice to his cellmate Baby-O (Mykelti Williamson). And when he’s up for parole, he’s polite to everyone, hopping on the convict-laden cargo plane that will take him home.  

Alas, trouble awaits. Some bad dudes, led by criminal mastermind Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich) and his imposing partner in crime Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames), are also aboard, and they’ve hatched a plan to break free. (Unlike Poe, they’re not about to be released.) Soon, all hell breaks loose, the convicts seize control of the plane, and Poe must figure out how to stop them while staying alive long enough to get back to his family.

The inspiration behind Con Air wasn’t particularly deep. Scott Rosenberg, a rising screenwriter at the time, was given an article by Disney executives about a program that ships criminals cross-country by plane. “They wanted me to come up with an idea,” he recalled. “But they ‘didn’t want Die Hard on a plane.’ … So I just noodled on it for a while. Listened to a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers records. And once I happened upon the notion of the guy who had never met his daughter — that his wife had been pregnant when [he] got busted — I saw how I could make this thing work. That sightline was so clean. It allowed me to adorn the thing with the craziest motherfuckers, the most absurd dialogue and set-pieces. Because, when all is said and done, he was just another man trying to find his way back home.”

There’s an emotional undercurrent to Con Air if you look closely enough, but mostly the absurdity takes center stage thanks to West, who very much followed the Bay style, “substituting movement for meaning and stimulation for thrills,” as Phipps writes in Age of Cage. High-octane producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who also produced The Rock and put Bay on the map, hired West because he’d liked a Super Bowl Pepsi commercial that he’d directed. It was an age of quick-cut, MTV-inspired action movies. In a 1997 New York Times piece about this new wave of young filmmakers, Bay said, “What we’re seeing now in movies is a constant bombardment and visual stimulus: things are now faster and bigger; sounds are louder, and the audience expects so much technical expertise. I’m not saying that’s always so good. But these are the ingredients.”

That more-is-more approach permeated Con Air. The camera’s always moving or positioned at intensely canted angles. Characters walk away from massive explosions in badass slow-motion. And then you have Cage’s whole getup. Whereas he played a relatively dorky regular dude in The Rock, making him easy to root for, in Con Air he transformed his body, getting chiseled and buff. He looked like an action hero, although his accent was meant to suggest a humble hillbilly. (As Poe announces at one point, he does, in fact, have family that live in a trailer.) It was a goofy caricature, lacking the wit we’d expect from such a good actor clearly trapped in a meathead-y action flick. What had Cage gotten himself into?

Con Air made less money than The Rock, and the reviews were meaner, with many critics complaining how big, loud and stupid the whole thing was. Even Roger Ebert, who begrudgingly enjoyed the film, wasn’t thrilled with Cage’s portrayal, writing, “Cage makes the wrong choice, I think, by playing Cameron Poe as a slow-witted Elvis type who is very, very earnest and approaches every task with tunnel vision; it would have been more fun if he’d been less of a hayseed.” The performance came across a bit like a stunt, with some of Cage’s melodramatic line deliveries especially snicker-inducing. (“Put the bunny back in the box!!”) Con Air seemed to represent a loss of principles. It was embarrassing to watch.

Funny enough, Cage was in another blockbuster later that summer, the much-better-received Face/Off, which featured a fairly over-the-top performance as well — two, if you consider that he’s playing the evil Castor Troy and also the heroic Sean Archer once they switch faces. And yet despite (or because) of its demented premise, Face/Off has gone on to be a beloved 1990s action classic, much like The Rock. Meanwhile, Con Air is dismissed as junk, a sign of the fall from grace that was coming for Cage.

So imagine my surprise when I rewatched the movie this week and found it to be… an actually pretty decent Nicolas Cage action film. Not great, not even all that good, but what was apparent was that what once seemed like artistic compromise was, in fact, a clue to the direction he’d take his acting over the next 25 years. The choice to be slightly elevated and detached — part of the movie but also apart from the movie — has been a strategy for most of his subsequent work. For better or worse, the Cage we now live with is the one that shows up in Con Air. There were hints of it in earlier performances. But it’s on full display here, and clearly it’s a mode that appeals to him. 

Now 58, Cage has long been a compelling figure. Filmgoers have been sucked in by stories of his wild spending, which purportedly led him to bankruptcy and the need to take any acting job. There were the increasingly unhinged performances in everything from Ghost Rider to Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Sure, there were also the occasional flashes of the old genius, such as in 2013’s Joe or last year’s Pig. But what exactly was he doing? Was it all a put-on? Was he reinventing the art of acting by going so big? Or had he become a self-parody? 

Even when Cage would talk about how he worked, those questions still lingered. “You either have the proclivity to open up your imagination or you don’t,” he told The New York Times a few years ago. “If you have that propensity and are on camera about to do a scene, what would make you believe in what you’re about to do? Say you’re playing a demon biker with an ancient spirit. What power objects could you find that might trick your imagination? Would you find an antique from an ancient pyramid? Maybe a little sarcophagus that’s a greenish color and looks like King Tut? Would you sew that into your jacket and know that it’s right next to you when the director says ‘action’? Could you open yourself to that power?”

Still, in recent times the critical consensus has shifted back to Cage’s side. Yes, maybe he still does too many questionable, marginal films, but his commitment to his style of work is so unshakeable that it’s admirable, and certainly sets him apart. As a result, if you revisit Con Air, you may be struck by how unshocking the performance feels now. Honestly, it’s akin to the many flying leaps he’s been doing ever since. Even Poe’s overly emotional plea to serial killer Billy Bedlam (Nick Chinlund) to put his daughter’s bunny back in the box isn’t that far afield from Cage’s infamous “Not the bees!!!!” from 2006’s woebegone The Wicker Man. From his earliest roles, Cage has always had a talent for putting a weird emphasis on certain words, but in Con Air, lines like “Cyrus, this is your barbecue, man, and it tastes good” are extra-funny because of the off-kilter, overly enthusiastic way he delivers them. Is he kidding? Is he not? Does it matter? The way he plays Poe is reminiscent of so many of his other characters — the guy may be ridiculous, but he’s his own person, free of anyone’s judgment.

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When I saw Con Air during its initial release, the culture was still very much awash in the notion that artistic integrity meant never selling out to the man. Kurt Cobain was hailed because he hated corporate rock, self-respecting musicians never licensed their songs to commercials, and Friends was popular but most certainly not cool. And in the movie world, there was a vibrant arthouse/independent scene thriving, with films like Reservoir Dogs and Leaving Las Vegas suggesting that the most interesting work was being done far away from the big studios. Back then, Cage’s jump to action movies was the equivalent of, I dunno, Nirvana headlining the Super Bowl halftime show — it was unseemly. 

Anyone who didn’t live through that era will find all of that ridiculous, and they probably should. While artistic integrity is still worth preserving, the shifting economic reality since the 1990s has made such purity harder to maintain. (If you’re a young band now, with record sales nonexistent and a touring schedule a luxury in the midst of COVID, getting a song on a TV show or ad is a lifeline, not a sellout.) 

And, in a funny way, Con Air started to signal this move away from a demarcated corporate-whore/independent-artist mindset. It wasn’t just Cage making the leap — the film featured other venerated arthouse actors like John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi. John Cusack, a poster-child for Gen-X principle, played a U.S. Marshall. Soon, Bruckheimer would recruit indie-identifying actors such as Ben Affleck, Frances McDormand, John Turturro and Billy Bob Thornton for his later action extravaganzas. It no longer seemed weird or wrong. The attitude became, “Eh, what’s the big deal?”

None of this is to say that Con Air is some misunderstood masterpiece. It’s a deeply dopey action flick that features a very young, pre-Half Baked Dave Chappelle playing a wiseass convict. It’s a movie where the story’s big jerk, a DEA agent named Malloy (Colm Meaney), has a sweet sports car with a vanity license plate that reads “AZZ KIKR.” (Will that car be destroyed by the end of Con Air? Of course it will.) 

But like a lot of 1990s action films — especially the Bruckheimer ones — it now feels incredibly innocent, almost wholesome. Con Air is so jubilant — and Cage’s noble-hayseed shtick so untroubled — in part because it doesn’t know that 9/11 is just around the corner. The mayhem, the tough-talking dialogue, the sheer stupidity of the whole weightless affair — it feels mercifully unburdened by the somber textures that action movies would eventually adopt as a reaction to the 2001 terrorist attacks and the darker political landcape that soon followed. Con Air, and Cage’s giddy, bro-tastic performance, exist in a bubble it’s tempting to wish we could all crawl back inside of. Call it nostalgia or a greater appreciation for what Cage was up to, but Con Air simply plays better now than it did back then. 

After Con Air, Cage’s run as an action star continued for years, but went downhill quickly thanks to the National Treasure and Ghost Rider films — which were at least better than what followed, like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Nowadays, as he put it in a recent L.A. Times profile, he’s long since been “marginalized by the studio system. I had a couple of flops in a row, so I was no longer invited. … But it’s okay.” 

I wouldn’t want to make the case that the world is poorer for Cage’s inability to make more Con Airs. But it’s fascinating to revisit the film and see the sort of hyper-vivid, unabashed ACTING that would soon define his career. What was once viewed as embarrassing could, instead, be thought of as liberating. 

Cage said he wanted to “bring a more risk-taking acting style” to action movies, wondering aloud how a serious, Oscar-winning thespian such as himself could fit in a cinematic world of giant explosions and increasingly elaborate special effects. His Poe is an unlikely guy to save the day — although, because he’s an Army Ranger, he’s got the chops to crack some skulls and kick some ass. It was Cage’s version of what a jacked, All-American action hero should look like. Not surprisingly, there’s something a bit satiric in the portrayal, but also something sincere — ultimately, Poe is just another soulful outsider, like the misfits he played in Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart

Whatever happened after Con Air — the financial problems and the iffy career choices — the movie is a time capsule for the moment when Cage began that journey, one that no actor of his caliber had embarked on before. Now, it’s not so strange in an age when indie stalwart Robert Downey Jr. reinvents himself as Iron Man. Right or wrong, nobody “sells out” anymore — we’ve come to accept that, eventually, just about everyone is going to do a big paycheck gig. 

Was it snobby to believe that artists should protect their integrity? Or was it cynical that everyone just started cashing in, believing that the dream of every Sundance director was, one day, to helm a superhero flick? Con Air wrestles with these questions, watching a singular actor spending his time blowing stuff up real good. The movie is both ludicrous and eerily prescient about a creative tension that continues to this day. Poe just wants to get home — Nicolas Cage was piloting himself toward a future only he could see.