Review: Con Air (dir. Simon West, 1997)

Anyone who still thinks Hollywood doesn’t care about the family hasn’t been going to the movies lately. The big-budget blockbusters this summer are about little else, and even religion’s been getting a reprieve.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park demonstrates that dinosaurs can be the most loving parents of all. Speed 2: Cruise Control trades in the original film’s punchline — in which two strangers spoke of basing their relationship on sex — for a marriage proposal and talk of raising children.

Batman, once a brooding loner, spends most of Batman & Robin building a superhero “family” for himself; and, while the single, sexually aggressive Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) may be unforgivably evil, her married partner in crime Mister Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is treated with surprising sympathy.

But Con Air does them all one better. Not only is the hero, Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), defined by his relationship with his pretty, blonde wife and pretty, blonde daughter (he’s in prison because he accidentally killed a man while defending them), he’s also a testosterone-pumped hero of faith in an action flick with a surprisingly high quotient of religious references.

Consider Poe’s longish hair and stubbly chin, which give him, in the words of one critic, a “Christ-gone-Rambo” look, as opposed to the diabolical bald-with-goatee villain Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom (John Malkovich).

Consider the pregnant phrases Poe utters (“There’s only two men I trust, and one of them’s me”). Consider the picture of Jesus hanging in his prison cell. And especially consider his declaration to a wounded friend who questions God’s existence: “I will show you that God does exist!” And, with that, Poe proceeds to save the day.

And let’s not forget Garland ‘The Marietta Mangler’ Greene (Steve Buscemi); he’s supposed to be the worst psychopath of all, yet he’s apparently redeemed when a little girl lets him play with her dolls and gets him to sing “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”

Moral reformers from Ted Baehr to Michael Medved have long argued that, if Hollywood studios were only nicer to religion and the family, movies would make more money. Tinseltown apparently believes them: with budgets soaring to $100 million per film and beyond, studio heads are playing it safe and peppering their scripts with just enough warm, cuddly, domestic fuzzies to help their movies sell.

But the vision they offer is trite and unconvincing. Complex, thorny relationships are reduced to simplistic equations: save your noncommittal girlfriend from a crashing boat and she’ll marry you; save your doubting friend from a crashing plane and he’ll believe in God. Instead of films that wrestle with issues of love and faith, we get a spirituality as hollow and plastic as the Barbie doll in Greene’s hands.

Christians may be winning the game of cultural representation, but we’re still a long way off from redeeming the culture itself.

– A version of this review first appeared in BC Christian News.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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