'Con Air' is one fast and funny joy ride Review: Nicolas Cage is over the top, as he should be in this over-the-top thriller.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Con Air" is preposterous. It's excessive. It's slathered in blood.

Ladies and gentlemen, please buckle up for an absolute blast at the cineplex.

"Con Air" is a pulsating action movie that never once asks to be taken seriously. It skillfully observes all the conventions of the thriller and simultaneously mocks itself for doing so. Yes, it's loud and violent and way, way overdone. But what "Con Air" is, most of all, is funny. Very, very funny.

The producer is Jerry Bruckheimer, an experienced hand at action pictures, with "The Rock," "Top Gun" and "Crimson Tide" all on his resume. The real surprises in "Con Air" are the sure hand of director Simon West, whose work up to now has been in television commercials, and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg's ("Beautiful Girls") endlessly clever script.

Example? At an early point, viperish John Malkovich, who masterminds the hijacking of a planeload of murderers, meets a Hannibal Lechter-like character played by Steve Buscemi. "Love your work," Malkovich says to Buscemi ("Fargo").

The script is full of such wicked fare and generously distributes its wit among a cast that seems to thoroughly enjoy itself: Malkovich as the impossibly self-possessed killer-in-chief, Buscemi as a mass murderer with the patter of a college sociologist, Danny Trejo as a malevolent serial rapist, and John Cusack ("Grosse Pointe Blank") as a Dostoyevsky-quoting U.S. marshal trying to thwart Malkovich from the ground.

But no one sizzles in "Con Air" like Nicolas Cage as Cameron Poe, a one-time Army Ranger sent to prison for killing a lowlife who was threatening Poe's wife. Eight years later, Poe has been paroled and is hitching a ride on the convict transport to return to his wife and the daughter he's never met.

Cage, with new musculature and long, stringy hair, is supple, sweaty and so sexy. When he speaks, his heavy-lidded eyes suddenly come into focus and gain intensity. He delivers his lines with a jolt and a flourish. Like John Travolta now, Cage gives the impression of complete ease and command in all his roles. You want comedy? Sure thing. Menace? Can do. Sentiment? Piece of cake. Cage is the Ken Griffey Jr. of American actors. Ain't nothin' he can't do.

His Poe, of course, is only a criminal in the eyes of the law. To everyone else, he is an idealized hero, all gushy about his daughter (his protection of a stuffed rabbit meant for her is a running gag), loyal to friends, chivalrous to women. He stays on the plane when he has a chance to escape in order to stop a female guard from being raped and help a fellow con who will go into a diabetic coma without his help.

Unlike say, "The Lost World," "Con Air" creates plenty of quirky characters who have something to say when the bullets and fireballs aren't flying. But West doesn't shirk when it comes to action, loading thrill upon thrill. In one extended, tumultuous sequence, he puts characters at risk all across the landscape. As Cusack tries to prevent the slaughter of a battalion of cops, Cage races across a firestorm to deliver insulin to his friend, while the rapist, Trejo, advances on a female guard and Buscemi sets his sights on a little girl. There's a whole lotta shakin' goin' on.

This last bit of mischief is a nod to "Frankenstein" and the monster's own encounter with a young tyke. "Con Air" is full of such sly movie references, from Cage's "Raising Arizona" to "Silence of the Lambs." When you leave this film, sated and smiling, you'll feel that West wrung every bit of entertainment from the script, the actors and the special effects. The skies in "Con Air" may not be friendly, but they are exhilarating.

'Con Air'

Starring Nicolas Cage, John Cusack and John Malkovich

Directed by Simon West

Released by Touchstone Pictures

Rated R (violence and language)

Sun Score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 6/06/97

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