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How Con Air Transformed Nicolas Cage from Strange Character Actor to Combustible Action Star

25 years ago, Simon West’s wacky debut film provided the perfect vehicle for the actor’s histrionic heroism

Nicolas Cage Con Air Good
Con Air (Touchstone Pictures)
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    Nicolas Cage may be the most unlikely action star of his generation. After all, he’s rarely — if ever — been conventionally attractive, overtly stoic, or intimidatingly buff and domineering. On the contrary, his oddball look and acting style fluctuate so broadly and frequently that he’s become a beloved meme legend. With dozens of action titles now under his belt, however, he’s certainly earned the title, and it was the lovably ludicrous Con Air that first charted that path.

    Released in early June 1997, Con Air was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who’d already established himself as a stylistic heavyweight with movies such as Top Gun, Bad Boys, Crimson Tide, and The Rock. Although the same couldn’t be said for fledgling screenwriter Scott Rosenberg and first-time director Simon West, they’d collectively go on to create adrenaline-fueled hits like Gone in 60 Seconds, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Venom, and The Expendables 2.

    Clearly, Con Air had the correct creative team behind it (especially since Rosenberg drew inspiration and authenticity from witnessing actual in-flight inmate transportation, as well as from visiting Folsom State Prison with Cage, Bruckheimer, and West). As for Cage — and speaking of 1996’s The Rock — he was just starting to shift into his career as a tough guy protagonist. In fact, The Rock, Con Air, and 1997’s Face/Off are typically seen as the trifecta of this transition. 

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    Previously, Cage was known primarily for being a bizarre and meek character in comedies, dramas, thrillers, and romances (such as Rumble Fish, Trapped in Paradise, Wild at Heart, Moonstruck, Raising Arizona, and perhaps most infamously, Vampire’s Kiss).

    While Michael Bay’s The Rock saw Cage kicking butt, dishing out one-liners, and ultimately saving the day, his role as FBI Special Agent Dr. Stanley Goodspeed was relatively subservient and — for lack of a better way to put it — normal. He was reluctantly thrown into the chaos by circumstance, not courageous choice, and he relied on Sean Connery’s SAS Captain John Patrick Mason to lead the way and confront the baddies.

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