Content note: this post contains Con Air spoilers, if you don’t know what goes down in a 20 year old film. It also mentions rape.
Con Air is an all-star vehicle for explosions, bunnies, Steve Buscemi channelling Hannibal Lecter, and a surprisingly progressive presentation of criminal and criminality. I’m going to assume you’ve watched this movie, or at least read the Wikipedia summary, as frankly I cannot be bothered to recount it for you. Basically, a lot of shit blows up, metaphorically and literally, when prisoners on a charter flight hijack the plane with a plot to fly off to a non-extradition country. Nonetheless, the most implausible thing about this film is that they sent a white military man with no criminal record to prison for killing an obnoxious working class guy.
The state is shit…
The view of the prison-industrial complex presented in Con Air is not a rosy one in the slightest. Neither, in fact, is any institution of the state. It is entirely the fault of the state that any of this happened at all.
First, let’s look at what a fucking awful idea it is to pack an aeroplane full of the nastiest prisoners in the first place. The plan, from the state’s perspective, is that they would like to fill up a shiny new supermax prison that they have just built. And it didn’t even occur to them that these nasty prisoners might not want to go to a supermax prison, and might think about saying fuck that shit. There is a long list of people who would not be dead had capitalism and government not colluded to make a lot of money by building a very large prison and having to fly people across the country to populate it.
Now, I get that this is very much a pre-9/11 film, and therefore perhaps inadequate precautions are taken to defend against hijacking. But nevertheless, as soon as the hijacking attempt begins, in effect the state’s action is to hand the hijackers a gun.
Due to shitty communication between state agencies, there are two guns within the cabin of the plane, and the other, too, is swiftly taken by the prisoners. Later in the film, a cache of weapons is discovered in the hold of the plane, including fucking rocket launchers. Every single weapon the prisoners use is a literal weapon of the state, and the state pretty much handed those weapons over.
So, the state supplied prisoners with an aeroplane and a bunch of weapons. Oh, and also a pilot, because nobody at any point thought it would be a bad idea to put a prisoner who knows how to fly a plane onto their sodding plane.
Those are the big fuck-ups, incidentally. We also see numerous safeguarding infarctions, most egregiously the failure to provide a diabetic prisoner with his medication in a timely fashion: that insulin should have been administered long before Baby-O ever boarded the plane.
The state personnel, our personifications of the state, are not all that bright. They are easily fooled, over-confident in their equipment and processes, and unwilling to listen to anything that might suggest they are anything less than total fucking supermen. In reality, they are a bunch of man-children, eager to play with their favourite toys.
The exception is John Cusack’s character, Vince Larkin, who is rightly critical and concerned throughout. Without Larkin, the prisoners’ plan to fly off into liberty would have been realised. It is he who spots the flaws in the staid, conservative state’s response. Larkin has an analysis of the social model of crime, derided by his colleagues. And he saves the day by stealing a car, then a bulldozer, then a motorbike, because laws about vehicular ownership are an obstruction to getting things done.
Our other of-the-state but not of-the-state character is Nicolas Cage’s Cameron Poe, a prisoner about to be released on parole and former ranger. Like Larkin, Poe is perfectly willing to go off the script of the laws of the land in order to save the day, and as well as some assaults, desecration of a corpse, and handling firearms that he is not licensed to handle, he joins Larkin in a spot of theft of a vehicle.
…but people are all right
For a film with a body count as high as Con Air, there is surprisingly little mindless violence on display. Sure, there’s heaps of violence, but the vast majority of it is not mindless in the slightest.
Let’s be clear: Con Air takes place under exceptional circumstances. There is violence, and almost all of the violent acts presented to the audience serve a function. For the most part, the violence is to achieve a goal it is difficult to argue with: liberty. The prisoners want freedom, and they are handed an opportunity to take it rather than live out the rest of their days in a supermax prison. This is why they kill, with the targets predominantly being state agents and those who do anything to oppose the plan.
Violence in Con Air is generally a purposeful act towards a goal. The very literal anarchy following the removal of state forces is not a descent into senseless chaos, but rather, a kind of order emerges as we see the characters work together towards a mutual goal. Together, the prisoners solve problems that arise, such as inconvenient deaths that could have ruined a deception; digging out the plane from the sand; and landing a plane under incredibly difficult conditions. It is possible, had they escaped, that perhaps they would have lived out their time in peace.
Two of the prisoners on the plane are explicitly labelled “criminally insane”, yet their actions appear contrary to the label slapped upon them. John Malkovich’s Cyrus the Virus is a rational man, never committing violence without reason, dedicated only to his pursuit of freedom. Steve Buscemi’s Garland Greene is a serial killer, brought aboard the plane in a mask. When presented with the opportunity to murder a little girl, he does not take it and befriends the child. He appears to end up peacefully, as a professional gambler in Las Vegas.
Some of the prisoners’ reasons for being in prison in the first place are presented to us, and again, they do not always seem irrational: for example Ving Rhames’s Diamond Dog has his crime fully outlined: he blew up an NRA meeting and said they represented the “basest negativity of the white race”. He’s not wrong there.
Indeed, the only particularly mindlessly violent character we see is serial rapist Johnny-23. However, all of the characters explicitly reject his behaviour, and some of the prisoners make it their business to protect a female prison guard from him. Not just our good guys, like Poe and Baby-O, but Cyrus, too, uses threats to ensure that Johnny-23 will behave himself. It is only when Cyrus is not present that Johnny-23 makes an attempt: and is immediately, gratifyingly, taken out by Poe.
The characters in Con Air have better politics about sexual violence and dealing with rapists in their midst than far too many anarchist men! They’re also more accepting of trans identities than too many anarchos to mention: when a trans prisoner expresses her gender identity, the characters are quick to accept her.
As if this is not enough, the point is driven home to us at the very end, where money begins to rain on the Vegas Strip. Infinite wealth falls into the hands of the proletariat–and all of the criminality and violence ceases completely. All crimes are crimes of necessity, Con Air tells us.
It is entirely plausible that, had the prisoners’ plot succeeded, everything would have turned out fine. Most of them aren’t just killing for funsies–they’re committing violence for a very specific purpose.
Give me a sequel
Con Air is high up my list of films I’d love to see a sequel to, and here’s why: we need it. The prison-industrial complex has only ratcheted up its game in the last 20 years. How much worse would it be with better weapons and post-9/11 security? Some of the same characters would likely still be in the system. And fuck it, let’s have a women’s prison on that plane: I want to see women committing perfectly explicable acts of violence in the name of liberty, as well as men.
And this time, let’s give everyone a happy ending.