Uncaged - Con Air (1997) & Face/Off (1997)
This year, I am going to try to get through the whole oeuvre of Nicolas Cage because my fascination with this man and his contradictions is endless. God help me.
Con Air (1997)
Con Air is essentially a vaudeville show of the most interesting character actors trying to one-up each other. I mean, Bruckheimer and West had to know that no one would usually find John Malkovich remotely threatening. I have never seen Malkovich play a normal person convincingly, so I guess it would only make sense that he would be able to play a villain as psychopathic and volatile as Cyrus the Virus. Reportedly, Malkovich hated working on this movie because the script was constantly being rewritten, and he had no idea how his character would change from one rewrite to the next. This has the unintentional result of making Cyrus seem even more unstable and unpredictable than he originally was. We can see the distinct Bruckheimer stamp on this movie in terms of the subject matter (mostly men trying to out-masculine each other) and the maximalist nature of...everything - the violence, the performances, the humor, etc. In retrospect, Bruckheimer might actually have been a somewhat beneficial influence on Michael Bay (who I am well aware did not direct this movie), since he also produced some of the better Bay movies (Bad Boys, The Rock) though Armageddon and Pearl Harbor were also produced under his watch. Here, the maximalism is used to make what could actually have been a pretty boring movie (much of it takes place in the confined space of a plane) into something dynamic and overstuffed, though admittedly fun. Somehow, Cage with an Alabama accent is actually the most grounded part of this movie, and he does manage to play a convincing action hero, proving just how versatile this man is, even though he is now known (and derided) for his more outrageous performances.
Face/Off was one of the earliest R-rated movies I remember watching (without my parents’ knowledge) of course. On the surface, it seems tailor-made for sophomoric sensibilities. It’s violent, full of sex and immature humor (a bomb with a naked woman on the screen? Really?) - plenty of material that parents would steer their kids far away from. I remember having certain “feelings” about Dominique Swain, so much so that I ignored the very very creepy implications when John Travolta as Castor Troy pretending to be Sean Archer takes a decidedly not-paternal interest in her. I was also so new to the forbidden R-rated realm that I didn’t know enough to find Nicolas Cage or John Travolta as Castor Troy to be ridiculous. Frankly, I was kind of scared of him (again, I was a very sheltered kid), and found both incarnations of him to be bogeyman-level frightening.
With some more experience I could appreciate it as camp. With even more experience, I have come back to treating this film seriously. Dismissing this film as camp ignores the incredible craft that John Woo uses in this picture - his signature slow motion and his use of bodies as kinetic brush strokes in his best action scenes. He treats the story with its silly premise intact as opera, and the most memorable performances are suitably dramatic and heightened. Nicolas Cage is so good that his relatively brief period as himself is indelible. Even though we objectively spend more time with “Castor” when he inhabits John Travolta’s body, Cage’s performance is the backdrop that we judge Travolta’s by. Both actors do more than just play impressions of each other. I would argue Cage is more convincing as a law-abiding man stuck in a criminal’s body and that even his attempts to act over-the-top as Archer pretending to be Troy are convincingly unconvincing. It’s this lack of conviction that Troy’s brother (an almost campily creepy and nerdy Alessandro Nivola) that he picks up on and makes us believe that he would suspect someone who has literally the exact same face as his beloved brother. Travolta is decent, but I found his own first scene as Troy pretending to be Archer with Nivola’s character less convincing.
Perhaps what makes this possibly the best of Woo’s American efforts is that these two very good actors (and other very good actors Nivola, Joan Allen, Gina Gershon) commit completely. Neither winks at the camera, although Travolta could be accused of a bit of mugging. Cage, however, plays his character as a tortured soul suffering an existential crisis, and his journey into Hell is compelling to watch. For me, this is a trashterpiece, because so many people will not be able to get past the admittedly dumb premise, but it’s made with so much artistry and craft that it is far better than most movies one would compare this to.