Former Army Ranger Cameron Poe is sentenced to a maximum-security federal penitentiary for using excessive force and killing a drunk man who had been attempting to assault his pregnant wife, Tricia. Eight years later, Poe is paroled on good behavior, and eager to see his daughter Casey whom he has never met. Poe is arranged to be flown back home to Alabama on the C-123 Jailbird where he will be released on landing; several other prisoners, including his diabetic cellmate and friend Mike "Baby-O" O'Dell and criminal mastermind Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom, are also being transported to a new Supermax prison. DEA agent Duncan Malloy wishes to bring aboard one of his agents, Willie Sims, as a prisoner to coax more information out of drug lord Francisco Cindino before he is incarcerated. Vince Larkin, the U.S. Marshal overseeing the transfer, agrees to it, but is unaware that Malloy has armed Sims with a gun.
Shortly after takeoff, Grissom incites a riot that allows them to hijack the Jailbird; Sims is killed when he attempts to stop Grissom. Grissom orders the aircraft to continue to Carson City for a scheduled prisoner transfer, where they will offload the guards and pilots disguised as prisoners in the middle of a dust-storm. Although he could have left the Jailbird during the transfer, Poe feigns cooperation with Grissom but leaves a recording device from Sims' body on one of the guards being offloaded. Among the new prisoners boarding the aircraft are Cindino, who masterminded their escape, their new pilot Swamp Thing, and serial killer Garland Greene, who even has the respect of Cyrus.
Grissom orders another prisoner, Joe "Pinball" Parker, to remove the transponder and plant it on another aircraft. Moments before the Jailbird takes off, the guards discover the clue Poe left behind and alert Malloy and Larkin. Pinball is unable to make it aboard the Jailbird on time and his body is lodged in the landing gear as the aircraft takes off when the security forces are alerted. Poe secretly writes a message to Larkin explaining Grissom's plan on Pinball's shirt and pushes the body out, where it lands in the middle of Fresno, California. Larkin calls for the National Guard to go to Lerner Airfield, an abandoned airbase, while using Malloy's sportscar to beat the Jailbird there.
The Jailbird lands at Lerner but overshoots the runway and grounds itself in the sand. Seeing no evidence of Cindino's jet, Grissom orders the prisoners to dig the Jailbird free. Meanwhile, Poe, seeking an insulin shot for Baby-O, meets Larkin, and the two run down their respective situations. Larkin finds Cindino boarding his private jet with his men, and manages to disable the jet before it leaves. Grissom discovers Cindino's treachery and kills him. Johnny 23 sees the inbound Guard forces and alerts the prisoners, who open the weapons locker on the Jailbird and set up an ambush. Larkin successfully leads the Guardsmen out of the danger. Grissom and the remaining prisoners return to the Jailbird and take off before Poe is able to escape with Baby-O and a female guard, Sally.
Grissom soon discovers Poe's true identity and prepares to kill him after shooting Baby-O. Malloy, having tracked down the Jailbird after being led astray by the transponder, opens fire on it and disables one of the engines. When Larkin tells Malloy about Poe's identity as a parolee, Malloy orders not to fire. They both order the Jailbird to land at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas; a lack of fuel forces them to crash-land on The Strip instead, ending up at the lobby of the Sands Hotel. Amidst the chaos, Poe is thanked by both Baby-O and Sally for his help. Grissom, Jones, and Swamp Thing escape on a fire truck. Larkin and Poe chase after them, eventually killing all three escapees. Poe finally reunites with Tricia and meets his daughter.
All of the convicts are now dead or recaptured, except for Garland Greene, playing craps and sipping a margarita in a casino.
- Nicolas Cage as Cameron Poe
- John Cusack as U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin
- John Malkovich as Cyrus Grissom (known as "Cyrus the Virus")
- Steve Buscemi as Garland Greene (known as "The Marietta Mangler")
- Ving Rhames as Nathan Jones (known as "Diamond Dog")
- Nick Chinlund as William Bedford (known as "Billy Bedlam")
- Rachel Ticotin as Guard Sally Bishop
- Colm Meaney as DEA Agent Duncan Malloy
- M. C. Gainey as "Swamp Thing"
- Brendan Kelly as Conrad
- Mykelti Williamson as Mike O'Dell (known as "Baby-O")
- Danny Trejo as Johnny Baca (known as "Johnny-23")
- Renoly Santiago as Ramon Martinez (known as "Sally Can't Dance"), credited as "Renoly".
- Jesse Borrego as Francisco Cindino
- Dave Chappelle as Joe Parker (known as "Pinball"), credited as "David Chappelle".
- John Marshall Jones as "Gator"
- Steve Eastin as Guard Falzon
- José Zúñiga as DEA Agent Willie Sims
- Kevin Gage as Billy Joe (Uncredited)
- Monica Potter as Tricia Poe
- Landry Allbright as Casey Poe
- Mike Howell as Rim Feagles
With second-unit work beginning on June 24, 1996, principal photography began shortly after at Salt Lake City, on July 1, 1996 and continued until October 29, 1996, at a number of locations. While most of the interiors of the Fairchild C-123 Provider transport aircraft were filmed in Hollywood Center Studios soundstage #7, Wendover Airport in Utah, as the stand in for the fictional Lerner Airfield, was used for the C-123 flying and taxi scenes. Director Simon West chose the barren and remote Wendover area "because it looked like the surface of the moon ... My idea was that it was perfect for the convicts who had been locked up for 10, 20, 30 years in little cells." The old wartime bomber base was also used for the aircraft boneyard scenes while the original swimming pool at the base was used in a scene where Garland Greene was talking to a young girl.
On August 29, 1996, Phillip Swartz, a welder employed by Special Effects Unlimited, a Los Angeles-based firm, was crushed to death at Wendover when a static model of the C-123 used in the film, fell on him. The film credits end with "In Memory of Phil Swartz." After filming, the filmmakers donated the Jailbird movie model used for the taxi scenes to the Historic Wendover Airfield Foundation and is currently on display at the ramp as an attraction for visitors.
Other filming locations included Ogden Airport where the exchange of prisoners is seen. The scene where the aircraft's left wing hits the Fender Stratocaster sign of Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the place where its premiere was held, was filmed using a remodeled guitar of the hotel and a Jailbird miniature model. The crash site was filmed in the Sands Hotel before its demolition on November 26, 1996. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer found the right spot for the climatic finale, originally planned for a crash at the White House, but Las Vegas was more in keeping with the dichotomy of convicts "cashing in." "We got very lucky ... The Sands was going to be demolished anyway. They blew up the tower on their own. We arranged to blow up the front of the building." The 2nd Street Tunnel in Los Angeles was also used for the tunnel chase scene near the end of the film.
The Jailbird movie model used during flight scenes in the film had a series of both military and private owners. In December 2003, it was sold to All West Freight Inc. in Delta Junction, Alaska. On August 1, 2010, the C-123 was destroyed when it crashed into Mount Healy within Denali National Park in Alaska. The three member flight crew was killed during the crash.
On the DVD commentary of Chappelle's Show, and later, on Inside the Actors Studio, Dave Chappelle recounted that he improvised most of his lines in Con Air. Jerry Bruckheimer wanted to cut the final scene of Greene at the craps table in Las Vegas and end the film with the heartfelt family reunion. The screenwriters (Jonathan Hensleigh did an uncredited re-write on the script) and director convinced Bruckheimer to include the scene and in test screenings, audiences loved it, thus it stayed.
- Main article: Con Air (soundtrack)
Aircraft used in the film
Along with using several highly-detailed models at 1/15th scale, and a multitude of military and private aircraft assembled for the desert boneyard scene, the following aircraft were prominently featured in Con Air:
- Beechcraft Model 18, no serial numbers visible, painted as "Uncle Bob's Scenic Tours" in scene at Wendover Airport, has the transponder planted on it.
- Bell 206B JetRanger III (two helicopters, one marked N5739V), seen at DEA headquarters.
- Bell AH-1F Cobra (two helicopters painted in military camouflage, one with "022734" visible on tail), used by Malloy to track the transponder-equipped aircraft and later catch the Jailbird.
- Bell UH-1D Huey (helicopter painted in military camouflage), used by Malloy to track the transponder-equipped aircraft.
- Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight (serial number unknown) seen briefly in Army Ranger rescue scene.
- Cessna 150F (unknown markings), lands at "Lerner Airfield" in midst of the landing of the Jailbird.
- Fairchild C-123K Provider N709RR (ex-USAF 54-0709, MSN#20158), used for the flying sequences (crashed after filming).
- Fairchild C-123K Provider N94DT (ex-USAF 54-0706, MSN#20155), used for crash scene in Las Vegas (scrapped after filming) [N 2].
- Fairchild C-123K Provider, painted as "N709RR", (ex-USAF 56-4361), used for static and taxi scenes at Wendover (left at Wendover Airport).
- North American 75A Sabreliner (serial number "HK-723"), used for Cindino's escape.
- Rockwell Aero Commander 500, seen in the hangar at Wendover Airport.
- Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion (serial number unknown) seen briefly in Army Ranger rescue scene.
The film grossed $224,012,234 worldwide, of which $101,117,573 was in North America.
Con Air has received mixed reviews from critics. The film currently holds a 57% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 5.7/10. Top reviewers, however, gave Con Air a positive 86% rating. On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 52 out of 100, indicating "mixed or average reviews." Roger Ebert awarded the film three out of four stars, saying it "moves smoothly and with visual style and verbal wit." Janet Maslin, reviewer for The New York Times considered Con Air an exemplar of the "thrill ride genre." In contrast, Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers decried the "flip, hip" and ultimately, "depressing ... pandering" present in the treatment.
As acknowledged by repeated requests for West to stage a sequel, Con Air has become a cult classic with an action movie audience.
Con Air: Unrated Extended Edition (2006) is an extended DVD version that includes many scenes that may have been possibly cut to prevent an R-rating. Included in the extended version is:
- Thug insults Poe's wife in the bar longer, calling her a "little blond bitch kitty".
- Poe being arrested is seen.
- Baby-O saving Poe from a prison riot is longer and is in a different take.
- Alternate footage when Poe invites Baby-O to a barbecue.
- Diamond Dog entering the aircraft.
- Baby-O being body cavity searched.
- Different take of Poe's "Sweet bird of freedom" line in a relieved tone instead of sarcastic and an alternate Pinball introduction.
- Diamond Dog shoving the handcuff in the guard's neck is longer.
- Dead prisoner drooling blood while slumped over dead.
- Longer shot of one prisoner being shot in the head.
- Johnny 23 threatening Sally Bishop and his family to Poe.
- Poe and Bishop have a dialogue scene with Baby-O.
- Cyrus finding that Garland Greene has murdered a captured guard and asking him if he feels better.
- Alternative takes of some scenes, some longer takes, some additional bits such as one prisoner coming back with a cart of booze and cigarettes.
- Cindino burning longer.
- A prisoner being shot during the airfield shootout.
- As Baby-O is laying injured, Poe continues to reassure him that he will be at the barbecue and he will get a doctor for him.
Awards and honors
The film was nominated for Best Original Song (for "How Do I Live") and Best Sound Mixing (Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell and Art Rochester) at the 70th Academy Awards, losing to Titanic in both categories.
Conversely, the film won the Golden Raspberry Award for "Worst Reckless Disregard for Human Life and Public Property" at the 18th Golden Raspberry Awards. "How Do I Live" was nominated for both the Academy Award for Best Original Song and the Razzie Award Worst Original Song, but won neither.
The toy rabbit prop used in Con Air is the basis of a collaborative art project for an online community for fans of the webcomic Homestuck, written and illustrated by Andrew Hussie. The MS Paint Adventures webcomic extensively parodies the ending scene, with several characters developing obsessions with John Cusack, Cameron Poe. The stuffed bunny is sent all through time and space in an homage to the movie prop.
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