Con Air is the first movie to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer without his partner, Don Simpson, the pioneer of adrenaline-fueled high-concept trash who died of a drug overdose in January of 1996 after too many years of bad movies and bad living. If Simpson were to get a special afterlife screening of Con Air, I have no doubt that he'd give it the big thumbs-up. For Con Air, a headache in the form of a movie, is like an homage to everything Simpson stood for as a producer: noise, testosterone, the glory of wretched excess. This renegade action fantasy, which pretends to be about a hijacked plane full of vicious criminals but is really about proving that a movie can pin an audience to the wall with entertainment (call it the cattle-prod school of higher zapping), comes at you as a series of nonstop climaxes. It's so shameless, so psychotically nervous about keeping you ''thrilled,'' that the phrase over the top won't do it justice. It's like a drug designed for people who've done every drug and now want to be jet-propelled into numbness.
The picture is being marketed as a de facto sequel to The Rock, the final Simpson-Bruckheimer collaboration (a joke in which the lead villain, played by John Malkovich, knocks a rock out of the way is featured prominently in the television ads). The Rock, in essence, was a remake of Die Hard, and what gave it its distinctive overwrought garishness was the incoherent splatter- editing technique of director Michael Bay; it was like two hours of confetti exploding in your face. Con Air is a cleaner piece of overkill (at least you can tell what's going on), but it crowds you in a different way. The movie is all sweaty close-ups the actors playing goateed sociopaths are framed like mug shots and the script, by Scott Rosenberg, master of the embarrassingly ''hip'' one-liner (he's the one who inflicted the baroque preciousness of Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead on us), is a knotty pileup of clever-dumb Eastwood/Willis/Arnold aphorisms, most of which are too tortured to be funny. (Malkovich to rapist: ''If your d--- jumps out of your pants, you jump out of this plane!'')
Nicolas Cage gets right into the you-won't-believe-this- but-then-neither-do-we spirit of it all. As Cameron Poe, a decorated Army ranger who has spent eight years in prison on an involuntary manslaughter charge (he was protecting his wife from a barroom bully) and is now flying to freedom on a plane that's carrying nearly a dozen specimens of criminal scum, he sports long hippie locks that give him a saintly, Christ-gone-Rambo look, and he speaks in a noble overdeliberate drawl that makes him even more of a walking put-on than he was as the Elvis-in-snakeskin hipster of Wild at Heart. (He kills, but only because he loves.) Cameron doesn't want any trouble, but Cyrus ''The Virus'' Grissom (Malkovich), a brilliant mass murderer, has engineered an escape. For a while, as we're introduced to the various convicts, the movie is fun in a slick, degenerate way; it's like a nihilist retread of The Dirty Dozen. But Malkovich's master plan turns out to be an unwieldy bummer. It involves landing the plane in Carson City, letting off six men as decoys, taking off, landing the plane again, standing around in the desert, and then spending half an hour firing rocket launchers at federal agents.
Some of the actors are appealing I liked the way Ving Rhames could seem warm and murderous at the same time but they're all playing cliches. Malkovich, looking like the late punk-rock ghoul GG Allin, does his hostile whining, and Steve Buscemi, as a serial killer who comes on board in a Hannibal Lecter mask, is like a parody of a parody he's so calm, almost catatonic, that it's as if the film couldn't be bothered to make him remotely threatening. John Cusack, as the U.S. marshal tracking the convicts, is as boyish as Cage is ersatz macho. In Con Air, all that matters is the next cataclysm: the execution-style killings, the bomb that goes off in someone's face, the preposterous climax set aboard a fire truck speeding through Las Vegas, the fact that there are not one but two shots of men running toward us in slow motion as the world explodes behind them. Con Air may be the closest thing yet to pure action-thriller pornography. Ultimately, there's nothing to it but thrust. C