In 1988, a new action sub-genre was born with the release of "Die Hard", which spawned a flurry of activity in Hollywood and many pitch meetings starting with the phrase, "Well, it's like Die Hard on a...". Over the years, this sub-genre has evolved, and now the latest incarnation of the Die Hard formula, "Con Air", has hit the theaters.
But before we examine the Simon West-directed actioner, let's review the characteristics of the Die Hard formula. Up until 1988, the action genre was dominated by infallible, almost mythical, heroes with limitless abilities. Sylvester Stallone as "Rambo", Sean Connery/George Lazenby/Roger Moore as James Bond, and Arnold Schwarzenneger as "Commando" were examples of these types of heroes. "Die Hard" breathed new life into the genre with the fallible hero, an ordinary guy caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Of course, "Die Hard" was not the first, since it had many predecessors, including Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" and Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs". And if one examines the origins of "Die Hard", which originated from the novel by Rod Thorp entitled "Nothing Lasts Forever", a case could be made for the Die Hard formula as an offshoot of the big budget mainstay of the Seventies, the disaster movie (think "Towering Inferno" with terrorists instead of fire). Regardless, "Die Hard" begat a number of films using the same model, some of which were of equal or greater commercial success.
So what are the necessary elements for the Die Hard formula?
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"Con Air", from producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Top Gun", "Beverly Hills Cop", "Bad Boys", "Crimson Tide", "The Rock"), has many elements of the Die Hard formula. Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) is an Airborne Ranger who gets into a fight outside a bar while defending his pregnant wife. He ends up accidentally killing one of the rednecks and is sentenced to ten years in jail on a manslaughter charge. Eight years later, this fallen hero is released on parole and is taken home on a U.S. Marshall plane that happens to be carrying several high-security prisoners. Of course, his long-awaited reunion with his wife Tricia (Monica Potter) and daughter Casey (Landry Allbright) is put on hold when Cyrus 'The Virus' Grissom (John Malkovitch) and Nathan 'Diamond Dog' Jones (Ving Rhames) spearhead a bloody takeover of the flight. Poe is given an opportunity by the hijackers to get off the flight at its first stop, but decides that he can't abandon Baby O (Mykelti Williamson), a fellow prisoner who needs insulin badly, nor U.S. Marshall Sarah Bishop (Rachel Ticotin) who is being threatened by serial rapist John 'Johnny 23' Baca (Danny Trejo, the menacing tattooed fellow who's in all of Robert Rodriguez's films) who gleefully has a tattooed heart for everyone of his victims. Instead, Poe pretends to be on side with the hijackers, hiding the fact that he is technically a free man.
It's a bunch of idiots on a plane dancing to a song by a group who died in a plane crash.
On the outside, is Marshall Larkin (John Cusack) who wants to get the plane down intact and believes that Poe is staying on the plane, waiting for an opportunity to resume control from Cyrus. However, he is opposed by a trigger happy DEA Agent Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney, Chief O'Brien on "Deep Space 9"), who simply wants to blow the plane out of the sky because one of his undercover agents on board the plane was killed.
Put the bunny back in the box!
Unfortunately, Cameron is running out of time. Baby O is quickly lapsing into a diabetic coma, a helicopter gunship under the command of Malloy is racing towards them with missiles locked, Billy 'Billy Bedlam' Bedform (Nick Chinlund, who played a shirts-buttoned-up-to-the-collar-escalating-death-fetishist on "The X-Files") has just discovered Poe's parole papers in the personal effects hold down below, and Cyrus is becoming increasingly suspicious of Poe, and Garland 'The Marietta Mangler' Greene (Steve Buscemi) has got a wild look in his eyes and is starting to sing. Only he alone can take back the plane from the hands of Cyrus and Nathan... unless of course Larkin can't stop Malloy from shooting the plane down, which would then make the whole point moot.
I can't exchange a friend's life for my own.
"Con Air" is full of unbelievable stunts and pyrotechnics that are characteristic of Bruckheimer's Hong Kong action film influences. The whole John Woo bag of tricks is found here: the dramatic dolly-ins, the slo-mo action sequences, guys running around with two guns, the internal conflict that Poe faces between loyalty and duty, and redemption through cartoon violence.
It is a spectacle movie that plays off the Die Hard formula nicely, though the spectacle does seem a bit tame compared to other offerings currently in the market place, especially towards the middle of the film, when the plane is temporarily grounded. However, the pace picks up again with an incredible crash-landing and subsequent high-speed chase on the Las Vegas strip. If "The Rock", "Bad Boys", or Hong Kong action movies are your cup of tea, then so will "Con Air".