Jailbirds

Jailbirds

Jailbirds

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June 8 1997 3:30 AM

Jailbirds

Con Air marks Nicolas Cage's flight from integrity.

Con Air
Directed by Simon West
A Touchstone Pictures release

Ulee's Gold
Directed and written by Victor Nuñez
An Orion release

Having risked appearing foolish in the cause of his art; having tackled his parts with demented, hyperbolic integrity, letting the madness of his roles infuse him and carry him into the ether; having snagged an Oscar for his besotted, bebop melancholia in Leaving Las Vegas; Nicolas Cage has now set out to prove that he can be as much of an overmuscled jackass as Sylvester Stallone. For an actor so gifted this was no easy feat. It took months of labor with a personal trainer to develop both a beefcake physique and that distinctive deadness-behind-the-eyes of the practiced bodybuilder. And it took a project of rare slickness and vacuity to help him blot out all traces of his hitherto peculiar but attractive personality. It took Con Air.

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This is a film that disdains prosaic time and space. The action is hooked to a backbeat. The actors float, abstractly, in the frame, lit so that their muscles have a luster. None of the images breathe; the details are fixed as in cement. In this airless setting, nothing seems truly at stake--with the possible exception of Cage's artistic soul, which has been sold to Jerry Bruckheimer, the surviving half of the team that brought you Flashdance (1983), Top Gun (1986), and last summer's The Rock. Here is Cage, a noble convict, swollen pectorals pumping as he runs from an exploding airplane hangar in slow motion, looking every bit as credible as Lou Ferrigno's Incredible Hulk. Here is Cage, brawny arms hugging a bullet-pierced buddy who rasps that there is no God--to which he answers, without a whisper of irony, "I'm gonna prove to you that God does exist!" breaking up their pPieta to trash a planeload of drooling sociopaths while electric guitars squeal their hosannas.

Cage has been incarcerated, Rambo-like, for killing in self-defense. Paroled after seven years and with a yearning to see his daughter and loyal blond wife (Monica Potter, the apotheosis of the Ivory girl), he has the bum luck to land on a prison transport flight described--in one of those testosterone-laden lines that can be comfortably transplanted to coming attractions--as "a planeload of pure predators." These include serial killers, massrapists, cannibals, and a "poster child for the criminally insane" called Cyrus "the Virus," played by John Malkovich, who recycles his carnivorous Bugs Bunny act from In The Line of Fire.

Once the prisoners stage their inevitable coup, blow away a few guards, and install their own wild-man pilot, the movie gives them little to do except fly the unfriendly skies. Really, their ambitions are shockingly limited for a planeload of pure predators. They don't rob Fort Knox, attempt to wipe out the Eastern seaboard, or even molest the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They just wing it, leaving plenty of time for softy agent John Cusack and meany agent Colm Meaney to debate the merits of shooting the jailbirds out of the sky. (Cusack seems to have a psychic bond with Cage, perhaps because he's playing the part that Cage would have played in his pre-hunk, pre-lobotomized era.) Bystander Cage doesn't side with the escaped prisoners, as you wouldn't if you had a wife who looked like that waiting for you. He's also pissed at Malkovich, who is insufficiently concerned that Cage's prison bud needs a shot of insulin bad. Yes, Scott Rosenberg's empty opportunistic script can't even generate believable conflict among convicts.

Apart from a cunningly tasteless tea-party in an empty swimming pool featuring a little girl and a Jeffrey Dahmer-like mass murderer (Steve Buscemi), Con Air is boring to the marrow. It's much less entertaining than The Rock, which had a genuine comic snap in the scenes between Cage and Sean Connery, back when Cage wasn't striking heartthrob poses (except for those amusing occasions when his characters were striking heartthrob poses). Is there any death more conclusive for an actor than putting on a muscle shirt and walking around in slow motion?

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Movies as synthetic as Con Air make me wonder if my time wouldn't be more enjoyably spent watching a duck. Let me explain. The writer Bill McKibben begins his meditation on television and nature, The Age of Missing Information, by describing a duck gliding around a pond, contrasting a morning spent watching its languorous motion with the rat-tat-tat of images and data on more than 100 cable TV channels--images that, he argues, carry far less information about the way the world works than the back-and-forth of that lone quacker. (I'm oversimplifying, but that's the gist.) My old friend McKibben's aesthetic is not the same as mine (his favorite movie is Gandhi), but since reading his book I pay closer attention to the temporal aspects of film, convinced that even, say, a successful formula thriller like Breakdown derives much of its power from its simulation of real time.

From that angle, the starkest counterpoint imaginable to Con Air is Ulee's Gold, which begins with a leisurely scene of Ulee Jackson (Peter Fonda), a traumatized Vietnam veteran, aside a swamp, tending impassively to his tupelo honeybees. In the film, which opens next week in New York and Los Angeles, beekeeping is a mark of spiritual purity. Ulee might have cut have himself off from the emotional hurly-burly of life, but he's deeply in tune with the natural world. "The bees and I have an understanding," he announces, stoic in his denims. "I take care of them, they take care of me."

Judging from his films, among them A Flash of Green (1984) and Ruby in Paradise (1993), the director and writer Victor Nuñez believes it's improper to let events unfold in anything other than real time. There always seems to be plenty of it, along with the chance to study the faces of his characters, even when there's not a great deal going on in them. (In Ruby, the face on display was a nice and interesting one, belonging to Ashley Judd, so this wasn't a problem.) Ulee's Gold does evolve into a sort of thriller, as Ulee's family runs afoul of his convict son's ex-partners in crime. But even during the climax, it is possible to look up and count the Exit signs, or the tiles on the ceiling. Nuñez's movies go places, but with no acceleration, like the duck on the pond.

Lacking the compression of the greatest movie making, the realism of films like Ulee's Gold leaves me slightly yawny. The unassuming way Nuñez tells a story assumes, in fact, an enormous amount of audience indulgence. Nonetheless, there are compensations. Consider a scene in an Orlando hotel room, in which Ulee meets with Eddie (Steven Flynn) and Ferris (Dewey Weber), the two thugs who wish to extract from him a hidden stash of loot. Flynn speaks politely, deliberately, in no hurry to press his point and yet unwilling to let his listener off the hook, persisting in the pleasantries well past the point of pleasantness. The seconds crawl, and, as they do, you realize that the immobile, obsequious Eddie is infinitely more terrifying than any of the slobbering, muscle-flexing, knife-wielding psychopaths of Con Air. A Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster can't waste a beat simulating a real human exchange. Victor Nuñez has all the time in the world.

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Clips info TKTK

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The lineup  (71 seconds): Sound01 - conair1.avi or Sound02 - conair1.mov; download time, 5.50 minutes at 56K Sound03 - movie-conair1.asf for sound only