Con Air is a one-of-a-kind, brilliantly bonkers, balls-to-the-wall action movie that probably wouldn’t have been made if it was floated as an idea for a movie today.
A Jerry Bruckheimer production at the height of the blockbuster producer’s success, it starred Nicolas Cage and an ensemble cast that included Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, Dave Chapelle, John Cusack and, of course, John Malkovich.
Loud, brash and totally daft, it’s a film that also happens to be part of the Holy Trinity for Cage fans, alongside The Rock and Face/Off, when the actor was truly at the height of his powers.
20 years on from the film’s release, here are a few things you may not have known about this absolute juggernaut of an action flick.
The idea for Con Air originated from a newspaper article about an actual, real-life plane that transported convicts which was picked up by screenwriter Scott Rosenberg.
After reading an account detailing the special program, he visited the nearby Oklahoma City base to see the service in action.
“I spent three days on the Con Air plane with the convicts. We flew all over the country. These guys were in a really bad mood. It was just before Christmas, and that didn’t help matters.
“But it was great for me to see the tension and the conditions, and to observe these hardened convicts at their worst. It was very unsettling, and a bit terrifying. But I knew the story would make a great film.”
“Nobody frisked me,” he recalled of the moment he entered the plane. “I just walked on with a notebook, pencil and tape recorder. When I asked about contingency plans, in case something went wrong, they didn’t have an answer, because there aren’t any such plans.”
Simon West was recruited as director with no experience of helming a big budget film.
One thing he did have experience in was directing several big tv commercials and a fair few music videos – including the promo clip for Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”
Robert Downey Jr, Matthew Broderick and Charlie Sheen were all considered for the part of Vince Larkin before it was eventually offered to John Cusack.
Cusack has made no secret of his disdain for Con Air, explaining in an interview with The Guardian that he took on the project purely for the paycheck.
“The ones that suck I tend to blank out,” he explained back in 2007. “It’s like I never even made them”.
“I use those kinds of films to get leverage,” he added. “You wouldn’t think Con Air had anything to do with Max [his 2002 movie about the friendship between a fictional art dealer and his student, Adolf Hitler], but in my career it does. It’s doing Con Air, or doing romantic comedies, that makes Max possible. The bad stuff you just try to make as good as you can.”
Almost every line spoken by Dave Chapelle’s character was improvised. Chapelle played the part of prisoner Joe “Punball Parker” and revealed that almost all his lines were made up on the spot during a 2006 appearance on Inside the Actors Studio.
John Malkovich wasn’t the original choice to play the role of Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom either with studio bosses keen on Gary Oldman for the role.
Several other notable actors, including Ed Harris, John Travolta, Michael Keaton, James Gandolfini, Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke were also considered.
Malkovich rarely speaks about Con Air these days and is reported to have endured a frustrating time on the set of the film, where the script was re-written on a near-daily basis, leaving him with little in the way of an opportunity to properly develop his character.
So why did he do it? Apparently, it was the opportunity to work with Bruckheimer on the movie.
“He has a great track record,” Malkovich said at the time, “and I think with a film you can’t always decide to take a role just based on the script or the director or the other actors. This was a hard shoot, but I really trusted Jerry and director Simon West.”
Danny Trejo, who played Johnny-23 in he film, revealed to The A.V. Club that things got pretty competitive on set, though one actor definitely ruled the roost in that respect.
“The only problem: the biggest case of testosterone I’ve ever been in,” he said.
“It was 30 guys all trying to be bad-asses. It was so weird. If you would spit, somebody would spit a little farther. Pretty soon, you’ve got 40 people trying to see how far they can spit. If you did a push-up, somebody would do two, then three, then four. It was like a competition of who was the baddest ass. It was funny.”
There was only ever one winner though.
“Nicolas Cage…That guy, when we did Con Air, he was in great, great shape.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Johnny Depp, Keanu Reeves and Brad Pitt were all considered for the role of Poe before Bruckheimer met with Cage.
It was only during that initial meeting between Cage and director Simon West that the idea of featuring a prologue, detailing the crime that landed Poe in prison, feature in the final movie.
Cage has also taken credit for much of the characterisation of Cameron Poe, claiming in one interview that the character “wasn’t a very real person” on the page.
“I decided he had to have been a Special Forces guy, so it would be believable that he could fight and kill so easily,” Cage said.
“And I wanted it to make sense that he would stay on that aeroplane even when his own sense of self-preservation would be pushing him to get off when he has the chance. So, his background and sense of honour keep him there to help his sick friend.
“But I wanted something more: I got one of the guards who are captured by the cons to be changed to a woman character. This creates a threat of rape. Poe couldn’t leave her unprotected. No decent man could, but I wanted to emphasise that by making him a Southerner, they have a strong sense of chivalry when it comes to women. So, making him a Southern former Special Forces guy made him a much more believable character to me.”
Cage also claims to have done the majority of his own stunts:
“There were explosions five feet behind me, flaming helicopters dropping right behind me, ball-bearing bullets over my head. So there was a level of intensity, fear, you might say.”
Cage also came up with that whole “bunny” scene.
“I’m proud of that. The whole bunny thing was mine … I wanted that to be symbolic of all the pain and loss he had gone through just for protecting his pregnant wife—protecting her too well, and getting thrown into prison.”
The film’s finale, which sees the plane carrying the convicts crash land into The Sands casino in Las Vegas actually happened for real.
“The Sands was going to be demolished anyway,” Jerry Bruckheimer revealed in an interview years later. “They blew up the tower on their own. We arranged to blow up the front of the building.”
Knowing they would only be able to shoot the scene once, the filmmakers set up 14 different cameras to record the rash.
The filmmakers knew they would only be allowed to shoot the scene once so they set up 14 cameras to capture the crash.
“We brought in a real C-123K and gutted it to make it as light as possible,” special effects co-ordinator Chuck Stewart recalled.
“We also built a 250-foot track and created a cable system to pull the plane into the front of the casino. We thought the cable system would ultimately give us more speed. We originally figured it as a five to one ratio and pulled the plane with a heavy truck, thinking that for every 10 miles an hour we got out of the truck, the plane would go about five times that speed. Even when empty, the plane was so heavy that the cable snapped and broke a couple of times. It took us a few tries, but the plane finally ploughed into the front of the hotel.”
There had been even grander plans for the film’s ending. In one draft of the script, the plane ended up flying directly into the White House.
Alas, Bruckheimer veteoed that version, claiming that the Las Vegas landing was more in keeping with the tone of the film.
One man lost his life during the filming of Con Air. Welder Phillip Swartze was crushed to death when a static model of the Fairchild C-123K aircraft fell on him. The movie was dedicated to his memory as a result.
The movie’s signature soundtrack song, “How Do I Live” by Leanne Rhimes holds the distinction of being nominated for both an Oscar for Best OrIginal Song and a Razzie for Worst Original Song.
It failed to land either award.
Both Cusack and Cage have expressed interest in starring in a sequel to Con Air while West already has a great idea for a sequel – one set in space.
He explained he would be up for helming a follow-up, saying: “If it was completely turned on its head. Con Air in space, for example—a studio version where they’re all robots, or the convicts are reanimated as super-convicts, or where the good guys are bad guys and the bad guys are good guys. Something shocking. If it was clever writing, it could work.”