Critics have taken jabs at Jerry Bruckheimer for decades, but I refuse to join in. In my opinion, the renowned action producer does "big dumb fun" better than anyone in the business. Explosions, gunfights, high-speed chases... name the action cliché and I can point you to a Bruckheimer film that fits the bill. I'm not saying he produces great films, but I’ll defend them for what they are, so unlike some of my stiff critical brethren, I'm a 'Con Air' apologist and fan.
Former Army Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicholas Cage) has been sent to prison on manslaughter charges for accidentally killing a man while defending himself and his pregnant wife. On his daughter's seventh birthday, Cameron is released on parole and boards a prison transport plane headed for his home state of Alabama. The plane is packed with a variety of dangerous inmates (played by John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Dave Chappelle, and other notable faces) who are being flown to a new supermax prison down south. When a group of particularly vicious criminals manages to take control of the plane and re-route it to Nevada, Cameron works in secret to help a pursuing US Marshall (John Cusack) gain control of the situation.
Let's address the film's criticisms up front. At first glance, 'Con Air' suffers from an adherence to over-the-top heroics, comic book villainy, and some rather convenient plot contrivances. I’ll admit that the story mills about at times, but 'Con Air' comes alive after a rather ordinary first act, continually revealing a number of surprises. The action may be conventional, but Cage and Malkovich's clever game of cat-and-mouse elevates the film from its simplistic setup -- their scenes simmer with tension as the two acting heavyweights sink their teeth into their parts.
The flick’s other elements only improve its credentials, including a supporting cast that obviously had a blast making the movie, with each actor getting at least one memorable scene-stealing moment. The dialogue is especially sharp for a '90s action film, with Cusack and Cage never burdened with limp one-liners. Perhaps most importantly, the villains themselves are genuinely threatening. Add it all together and you have a film that constantly overcomes the problems of its genre by offering a series of interesting solutions. Dumb explosions? Tongue-in-cheek satire. Stupid one-liners? Clever diatribes. Invincible hero? Quick wits. In each case, 'Con Air' chooses a more clever path than many of the action movies of its era. p>
'Con Air' certainly isn't for everyone, but action fans will find this to be a testosterone-fueled thrill ride that showcases plenty of brains with its brawn. Best of all, 'Con Air' is host to a collection of fine performances that lift it above the trappings of its genre. I for one am excited to see it make its debut on high definition.
After comparing this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded Blu-ray edition of ‘Con Air’ with the 1998 DVD version in my personal collection, it’s clear that technology has come a long way in ten years. The high definition transfer trounces the DVD in every way -- colors are far more vibrant, blacks are incredibly deep, and the contrast level is beautiful. Detail benefits the most, as skin textures pop, and on screen text is crystal clear. For a real "wow" moment, skip to the crash in Vegas and compare the SD and HD versions of the film for a palpable shock to the system. In high-def, the Vegas strip is alive with crisp lights, tiny bystanders, and shattering glass shards. In standard definition, the scene looks as though it’s been filmed with shoddy cameras through vaseline smeared lenses.
The Blu-ray squashed the standard DVD again and again. Gone are the murky, oversaturated skintones. Gone are the bothersome artifacts that once stormed across the screen. Gone are the patches of smudged texture and blurry detail. As it stands, longtime 'Con Air' fans will be relieved to see how good the film finally looks.
There are a few lingering problems, but most stem from the fact that the film hasn't been remastered specifically for high definition. I was distracted by heavy and frequent edge enhancement, a bit of source noise in the bright sky, and a handful of scenes that wavered ever so slightly. While this transfer could be a tad better, it could be a whole lot worse.
'Con Air' features a remarkable, uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (48 kHz/ 24-Bit) that provides a substantial upgrade from the DVD as well. Conversations are crisp and balanced across the front channels -- I never had to strain to catch any dialogue, and the track is nicely prioritized (even as the soundscape grows increasingly chaotic). Dynamics are also noteworthy. Bass tones are powerful and spread across the floor, and treble tones remain stable. Surrounds are aggressive, with sound filling the rear speakers and creating an immersive soundfield.
As with many action releases, the PCM track on 'Con Air' is slightly hindered by one thing -- questionable directionality during action scenes. The sound designers often rely on volume over subtlety, flooding the soundscape with explosions, rather than allowing each one to erupt from distinct positions in the soundfield. While the accuracy issue shouldn't be attributed to the audio mix itself, it still keeps this track from being all that it could be.
The Blu-ray edition of 'Con Air' features each of the anemic features from the most recent DVD and presents all eight minutes in standard definition. More distressingly, Disney has left out the 122-minute Unrated Extended cut of the film that was released on DVD in 2006.
I can't stress the words "big dumb fun" enough -- if that term turns you off, you should stay far away from 'Con Air.' Personally, I think the film is a blast and I had a great time watching it again. The Blu-ray edition finally provides fans with the audio and visual oomph they've been begging for. The video transfer puts the DVD to shame and the uncompressed PCM track is excellent. Alas, a small smattering of special features and an exclusion of the Unrated Extended cut of the film makes me suspect we'll be seeing a double-dip edition of 'Con Air' some day in the future. Frugal spenders beware.