The Tao of Nicolas Cage: 20 Years Ago ‘Con Air’ Changed Everything

In 1997, Cage forever left his imprint on pop culture with a little masterpiece about prisoner transport.
By  · Published on June 9th, 2017

In 1997, Cage forever left his imprint on pop culture with a little masterpiece about prisoner transport.

“They somehow managed to get every creep and freak in the universe onto this one plane. And then somehow managed to let them take it over. And then somehow managed to stick us right smack in the middle.”

The ’90s are widely considered to be the heyday of Nicolas Cage. This is when he truly put himself on the map and reigned supreme. That’s why so many of us that grew up in the decade are so drawn to him. That jump to true stardom didn’t actually begin, however, until 1997 with Con Air.

For the first half of the decade, Cage was certainly a big name. I mean the dude did win an Oscar for his portrayal of alcoholic screenwriter Ben Sanderson in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas. But he was regulated to dramas and comedies, some of which were of the romantic variety — at least that’s where general audiences had come to know him. This is significant because it meant that the average moviegoer at the time was only familiar with one side of Cage.

In movies like It Could Happen to You and Trapped In Paradise, Cage is playing straightforward leading men types. His signature weird touch that we all love him for now wasn’t as present in those types of films. It was usually there in some way, but it was much more subtle. The cool kids were already well aware of the bonkers performances Cage was able to deliver. To us it was standard practice. But when Con Air came out, the entire world was introduced to that Cage, and the universe was forever changed.

Con Air, as we all know, is the story of the world’s deadliest convicts being stuffed in one plane together and shipped off to various prisons around the country. Cage stars as Cameron Poe, an Army Ranger being released after serving eight years of a 10-year sentence for manslaughter. Because the plane is headed to Alabama, Poe’s home state, he’s placed aboard for transport. The plane is immediately highjacked by the convicts, and Poe steps up to save the day.

The movie ended up being a bit of surprise success. Simon West was a first-time director, and like I said up top, Cage hadn’t really done anything like this yet. Prior to Con Air, Cage only had one movie top $100M stateside, and that was The Rock, and you could argue that had more to do with Sean Connery and Michael Bay. Con Air sort of snuck up on people, with many calling it a wonderful mess — something I actually take issue with.

Con Air is an absurdly stupid movie. I would never argue against that. The basic premise is quite silly, and the film is littered with a number of stupid moments. At the top of the film we meet Monica Potter‘s character, Cage’s wife, and she’s seven months pregnant, but her stomach is completely flat. That’s stupid. The dialogue throughout the film often borders on obnoxious, adding another layer of stupid. With that said, I don’t think any of this constitutes as a mess.

It is my opinion that West and producer Jerry Bruckheimer knew exactly what they were doing. They knew what would happened when they paired Cage with John Malkovich, John Cusack, Dave Chappelle, Danny Trejo, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Colm Meaney, and M.C. Gainey. They knew scenery would be chewed and outrageous lines would be delivered with a clever wit. They also knew the film would carry with it a certain level of dumbness, but they didn’t care.

There’s that great story about the making of Jaws where Peter Benchley was thrown off the set because he didn’t like the film’s climax. Apparently Benchley thought it was stupid and unrealistic, and Spielberg argued that it didn’t matter because by that time he would have already hooked the audience and they’d be willing to buy anything. Both Benchley and Spielberg were correct. That’s sort of how I feel about Con Air. Bruckheimer and West were ok with going forward with some stupidity because they were counting on the audience to overlook those things in exchange for an awesome movie. They were right.

The stupidity and over-the-top nature of Con Air catapulted Cage into forever being known as an over-the-top actor. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because Cage does like to go big and was going plenty big before Con Air, but it is a bit ironic. Con Air kicks it into hyper-drive from the start, but Cage never really does. Sure, he does a very interesting Southern accent, but he keeps fairly calm, especially in comparison to the rest of the film. Cage’s Poe is sarcastic and kind of chill. He doesn’t even really have a signature Cage freak out, at least not anymore than he has in, say, Valley Girl.

None of this is bad, by the way. I love Cage’s performance in Con Air. He makes weird choices in the movie that other actors likely wouldn’t make, and it comes together perfectly. The way he and Malkovich play off one another is top shelf. It’s just interesting that Cage is probably remembered by most for going way over-the-top when that’s really just the movie as a whole and not him specifically. Funny how that works.

How people remember Con Air really isn’t all that important when talking specifics. What matters is the current legacy of the film, and in that regard it’s huge. Even if you’re one of the weirdos that hates Con Air you can’t really deny its significance. It’s an iconic film of the ’90s and in a way re-shaped the action genre. It certainly wasn’t the first film to take a B-movie action premise and turn it into a big budget summer blockbuster, but not many went this big and changed the game in this way. Once Con Air landed, the action genre, along with the career of Nicolas Cage, was changed forever. And as a result we all won. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a bunny that needs placing in a box.

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Chris Coffel is a contributor at Film School Rejects. He’s a connoisseur of Christmas horror, a Nic Cage fanatic, and bad at Rocket League. He can be found on Twitter here: @Chris_Coffel. (He/Him)