Cameron Poe (Cage) is on his way home to his adoring wife and daughter after serving years in prison for manslaughter. He's travelling on a plane full of supremely dangerous prisoners on their way to a new super-prison - but when the inmates take over the plane, only Cameron can stop their plans.
Action movies have a tendency to become victims of their own stupidity, taking themselves oh-so-seriously when they are obviously preposterous. Con Air, on the other hand, works a treat, because rather than merely acknowledging its ridiculousness, it glorifies it, magnifying every excess to previously untapped levels.
This is the kind of film in which criminals haven't just committed a misdemeanour, they've butchered 37 people and used their body parts as headgear; a plane doesn't just take off, it does so with the loading ramp down and a car attached by a rope; and a single car is not blown up when there are six armoured vehicles which can be demolished in a much noisier fashion. Yes, disbelief is required not so much to be suspended as removed altogether, but it barely matters as this is an adrenaline blast of the highest order.
Transporting dangerous criminals anywhere by air is a Very Bad Idea but where would dramatic potential be without it? The lifers are being flown to a new maximum security unit in Alabama. Naturally though, even before the seatbelt sign has been switched off, the psychos led by a shaven-headed Malkovich as Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom have launched an awesome escape bid.
Fortunately, parolee Cameron Poe (Cage) happens to be on board; off home to his wife and the daughter he's never met. He is an all-round decent bloke, who was framed and lives out his seven year sentence behind the opening credits (the Zucker brothers couldn't have done it better). It's down to him to reign in the crims while on the ground, cop Cusack blusters about trying to prevent his colleagues from shooting the plane down.
Thus is the scene set for a barrage of blistering set pieces, each more over-the-top than the last and hardly allowing pause for breath. High-speed chases are played out, things are gleefully smashed to smithereens or ignited in balls of flame, and Cage is curiously compelled to strip down to his vest. But its jocular nature aside, on an action level this delivers in spades - tautly edited, pacily directed and guaranteed to cause shocked gasps and blanching of knuckles.
And the cast enjoy themselves immensely. Ving Rhames isn't quite as scary here as in Pulp Fiction, but Malkovich spits out his lines with relish, and Buscemi, as the stark raving bonkers Marietta Mangler, is a marvel despite only having about ten lines in the entire movie. There are weak links - Colm Meaney's screeching cop seems strangely out of place, and the obligatory soggy ending pushes all the wrong buttons - but both are brief enough not to mar things.
While some may dismiss Con Air as junk, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more exhilarating thrill ride.