Action movies don’t come much crazier than Con Air. This airborne extravaganza from legendary blockbuster producer Jerry Bruckheimer casts some of the most respected film actors of the 90s, and throws them headfirst into one of the most madcap, explosive romps to hit screens that decade.
Nicolas Cage takes the lead as Cameron Poe, a US Army Ranger jailed for manslaughter who’s just about to end his sentence when he finds himself on a prisoner transport plane filled with the worst of the worst – and then those criminals, led by John Malkovich’s Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom, proceed to hijack the plane.
So, put the bunny back in the box, and sit down for a few facts about this 1997 action hit that you might not have known.
20. Mickey Rourke could have played Cyrus – but he blew his audition by pulling out a real knife
Con Air could have been something of a Hollywood comeback for the notorious Mickey Rourke.
He briefly sidestepped movies for a boxing career in the early 90s, and was trying to get back in the game when he landed an audition for Con Air.
Rourke was asked to read for the role of bad guy Cyrus Grissom – but his take on the character was a little too sinister.
The ever-intense actor terrified everyone present by going off-script and pulling out a real bowie knife during his audition.
The role of Cyrus Grissom went to John Malkovich instead – and it wouldn’t be until 2005’s Sin City that Rourke finally made his comeback.
19. The director’s biggest gig up to that point had been the video for Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up
Given how close it is in tone and content to Bad Boys and The Rock, you’d be forgiven for thinking that, like those movies, Con Air was directed by Michael Bay.
However, while Con Air is from the same producer as those films (more on whom later), it was directed by Simon West.
Con Air was in fact West’s very first feature film, the English director having previously worked in TV commercials and music videos.
West’s most famous work in this capacity was the video for Rick Astley‘s hit single Never Gonna Give You Up.
That’s right – every time you’ve been Rick-rolled, it was all thanks to the guy who made Con Air.
West’s other work in music videos included promos for Mel and Kim, and Mike and the Mechanics.
West would go on to call the shots on Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The Mechanic and The Expendables 2.
18. Nicolas Cage made the movie back-to-back with Face/Off
Production on Con Air overlapped with another major action movie: John Woo’s Face/Off.
These films shared a lead actor in Nicolas Cage, who was on an action hot streak after The Rock.
The actor shot Con Air and Face/Off back-to-back, and these two films established Cage as one of the biggest action stars of the era.
Not many people anticipated Cage’s career taking this turn so soon after his 1996 Best Actor Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas.
Con Air and Face/Off were released to cinemas in June 1997 within three weeks of one another. Both were huge hits, grossing over $220 million each at the box office.
Cage has made many more action movies since – although in the past decade, most of these have gone direct to DVD.
17. John Cusack and Steve Buscemi’s characters were written specifically for them
Con Air gives John Cusack one of his few action-oriented roles as US Marshal Vince Larkin.
Clad in socks and sandals throughout, Larkin is an unusually liberal and erudite character for a gung-ho shoot-’em-up flick.
If the role seems a perfect fit for Cusack, that’s because it was written with him in mind.
Con Air screenwriter Scott Rosenberg is a friend of Cusack’s, and wrote the part specifically for the actor.
The same was true for the role of serial killer Garland Greene, which Rosenberg wrote for his friend Steve Buscemi.
Later, Rosenberg and Cusack would co-write the screenplay for the actor’s 2000 romantic comedy High Fidelity.
16. They destroyed a Las Vegas casino for real
The high-octane climax of Con Air sees the prisoner transport plane crash land on Las Vegas.
This crash landing destroys a great deal of the famed Las Vegas strip – although most of this was done with special effects.
However, the filmmakers actually did destroy a Las Vegas casino for real whilst shooting the sequence.
The establishment in question was the Sands Hotel, a historic venue once owned by Howard Hughes and frequented by the Rat Pack, who filmed 1960’s original Ocean’s 11 there.
- Credit: Flickr
However, by the 90s the Sands was struggling to stay afloat, and in late 1996 it closed down and was scheduled to be demolished.
Because it was set to be torn down anyway, the owners were happy to let the Con Air crew smash a full-sized aeroplane through the lobby for real.
15. The toy bunny was Nicolas Cage’s idea
One of Con Air’s best-remembered characters (if we can call it that) is the toy bunny.
The cuddly stuffed toy is in the luggage of Nicolas Cage’s Cameron Poe as he makes his way home.
The parolee intends to give the bunny to his daughter, who he has never met, as a birthday present.
This gives the film one of its best lines, when Poe growls at Billy Bedlam (Nick Chinlund) to “put the bunny back in the box!”
This line is now considered a vintage Nicolas Cage moment – so it might not be too surprising to learn that Cage came up with the idea himself.
The actor suggested Poe should have the bunny as it would embody the character’s inner vulnerability, and his need to win his daughter’s love.
14. Theme song How Do I Live was nominated for both an Oscar and a Razzie
As befits any 90s blockbuster, Con Air features a memorable theme song in How Do I Live.
It’s often assumed that the song we hear in the movie is performed by LeAnn Rimes, for whom it was later a huge hit.
In fact, Con Air’s rendition of How Do I Live is performed by Trisha Yearwood.
The song was composed by Diane Warren, whose many other movie songs include Armageddon’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing, and Can’t Fight the Moonlight from Coyote Ugly.
- Credit: Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons
The undeniably sappy How Do I Live polarised audiences, who seemed to either love it or hate it – and the same went for awards season voters.
It was nominated both for Best Song at the Oscars and Worst Song at the Golden Raspberries – although it didn’t win either.
13. Malkovich and Cusack hated making the film
Neither John Cusack nor John Malkovich tend to make that many bombastic all-action blockbusters.
It might not be all that surprising, then, to learn that neither actor is said to have much affection for Con Air.
Malkovich is said to have been hugely frustrated throughout the shoot as the script was constantly being rewritten.
Cusack, meanwhile, reportedly doesn’t like talking about the film in interviews; it’s thought that he mainly did the film in hopes of boosting his career.
Two years after Con Air, Malkovich and Cusack reunited in comedy-drama Being John Malkovich.
This quirkier, more intellectual movie from director Spike Jonze was far more in-keeping with the usual sensibilities of Cusack and Malkovich.
12. A crew member was killed in an accident on set
Making large scale action movies can be a hazardous business, and at times people do get badly hurt – or worse.
Tragically, things went wrong on the set of Con Air, resulting in the death of a crew member.
However, the person killed was not a member of the stunt team, but part of the special effects unit.
The crew member in question was Phillip Swartz, who worked on the production as a welder.
Swartz was crushed under the weight of a scale model of the central aeroplane when it accidentally fell on him.
Because of this tragic accident, the end credits state that the film is dedicated to Swartz’s memory.
11. It was the first film Jerry Bruckheimer produced on his own, without late partner Don Simpson
Jerry Bruckheimer rose to fame and fortune in cahoots with fellow producer Don Simpson.
- Credit: Paramount Pictures
Sadly, Simpson had struggled with addiction for many years, and died from an overdose whilst The Rock was in production.
- Credit: Flickr
Con Air was the first film Bruckheimer made on his own, and he’s gone on to produce many more massive hits.
Bruckheimer’s subsequent movies include Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, the National Treasure movies, and most famously the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
10. The ‘Con Air’ prisoner transport system is a real thing
Con Air is one of those movies that’s so outlandish, it’s hard to believe almost anything in it could be based in reality.
However, the airborne prisoner transport system we see in the movie actually does exist.
The US Marshals Service introduced the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System – which quickly earned the nickname ‘Con Air’ – in 1995.
Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg heard about it, and was immediately inspired, knowing the concept “would make a great film.”
As research, Rosenberg “spent three days on the Con Air plane with the convicts. We flew all over the country.”
The writer recalls, “These guys were in a really bad mood… it was very unsettling, and a bit terrifying.” Happily, no hijacks occurred at that time.
9. Dave Chappelle improvised almost all of his dialogue
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer knew a thing or two about working with comedians, having given Eddie Murphy his big break with Beverly Hills Cop and its sequel.
Con Air gave another stand-up comedian one of his first big movie roles, in this case Dave Chappelle.
Chappelle had been an up-and-comer for several years, after breaking into movies with Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Con Air cast the comedian as Pinball, a fast-talking henchman of John Malkovich’s Cyrus.
Not unlike Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, Chappelle was allowed to ad-lib the bulk of his lines. Despite this, the actor’s most memorable moment comes once his character is deceased, and falls from the plane to the city streets below.
Chappelle has made a number of movies since, but has enjoyed his biggest success in stand-up and with TV series Chappelle’s Show.
8. Originally the plane was going to crash land on the White House
Crash-landing on the neon-lit streets of Las Vegas was the perfect ending for such a brash, larger-than-life action movie.
However, this wasn’t always the way the final scenes of Con Air were intended to play out.
The script was always going to end with the plane crashing, but earlier drafts had it landing on Washington, D.C.
Rather than tearing up the Las Vegas Strip, the Jailbird was going to devastate Pennsylvania Avenue – where the White House stands.
This would have been the second time the US capital had been destroyed on film in as many years, as Con Air opened a year after Independence Day.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer explained the change on the basis that “the guys really would rather crash into Las Vegas.”
7. Nicolas Cage did most of his own stunts
As might be expected, a whole bunch of other tough guy actors were considered for the part of Cameron Poe before Nicolas Cage.
However, Cage really threw himself into the challenge of playing a classically square-jawed action hero.
The famously dedicated actor proved his commitment by doing as much of his own stunt work as possible.
The actor recalled at the time, “There were explosions five feet behind me, flaming helicopters dropping right behind me, ball-bearing bullets over my head. So there was a level of intensity, fear, you might say.”
Hand in hand with this, Cage also worked out harder than ever before for the role, and was reported to often be lifting weights on set between takes.
6. It was an intensely macho set, according to ex-convict Danny Trejo
Con Air gave esteemed big screen hard man Danny Trejo one of his most high profile movie roles up to that point.
Trejo (infamously a bona fide ex-con) had been working his way up the action movie ladder in the decade leading up to his casting as Johnny 23.
As one of the convicts, Trejo was part of a predominantly male cast and crew, and the actor says this resulted in a lot of masculine energy on set.
Trejo tells Den of Geek, “Con Air was the biggest test of testosterone I’ve ever had.” (Again, remember this man has been in prison for real.)
The actor recalls, “If you spit, somebody would try to spit further and then further and further and pretty soon you’d have a spit war going on – everything was a contest on that movie!”
5. They shot in the Utah salt flats because “it looked like the surface of the moon”
The bulk of the action in Con Air takes place in (or above) Nevada – but much of the film was actually shot in neighbouring state Utah.
For the lengthy action set-piece at Lerner Airfield, the filmmakers took over Wendover Airfield, near Salt Lake City.
Director Simon West said that he chose the location because “it looked like the surface of the Moon.”
West explains, “My idea was that it was perfect for the convicts who had been locked up for 10, 20, 30 years in little cells… It was an agoraphobic’s nightmare.”
“When they get off the plane, the guys are terrified because they see 500 miles of nothing but salt flats in front of them – the complete opposite of prison.”
As well as playing host to Con Air’s epic ‘Bone Yard’ battle, Wendover was also used in Independence Day to double for New Mexico’s fabled Area 51.
4. Rachel Ticotin’s Guard Bishop was created in honour of real female prison guards
Con Air is a predominantly male movie, with most of the female characters – Poe’s wife Tricia (Monica Potter), and Larkin’s female associate Ginny (Angela Featherstone) – only appearing briefly.
The most notable exception is Guard Sally Bishop, played by Rachel Ticotin (of Total Recall fame).
The filmmakers decided to add a female guard to the cast when they visited prisons for research, and found a lot of women working there.
Executive producer Peter Bogart explains, “We actually saw many women guards in the California prison system, even in all-male facilities. According to the research we did, inmates seem to behave better in the presence of women.”
Still, as Rachel Ticotin herself acknowledges, the presence of a woman on board was also key to making Nicolas Cage’s old-fashioned southern gentleman Poe decide to stay on the plane.
Ticotin said of her character, “She is one of the reasons why [Poe] decides to stay on the plane even though he’s been paroled and could go home to his wife and child… he doesn’t feel it’s safe for my character, Sally Bishop, to stay on the plane without somebody protecting her. And he’s right.”
3. Director Simon West has suggested making a sequel set in space
As usually happens when an action movie proves successful, fans were soon hoping that Con Air could get a sequel.
To date this hasn’t happened – at least in part because the events of 9/11 meant that airborne action movies didn’t seem as much fun anymore.
However, over the years there have been occasional murmurs that Con Air 2 could happen – and director Simon West has pitched a suitably ridiculous idea.
In 2014, West told Screen Daily, “I would do [the sequel] if it was completely turned on its head. Con Air in space, for example – a studio version where they’re all robots or the convicts are reanimated as super-convicts.
“Or where the good guys are bad guys and the bad guys are good guys. Something shocking. If it was clever writing it could work.”
Despite his reported distaste for the film, John Cusack said in 2012 that he’d be open to a Con Air sequel (although that may be because, like Cage, Cusack’s career has fallen on harder times in recent years).
2. The three dead convicts are named after members of the Con Air crew
After the convicts seize the plane, they continue to follow their existing flight plan to avoid suspicion.
On their first landing, they are scheduled to let off several prisoners – but three of them have been shot and killed in the earlier struggles.
There’s a bit of in-jokery at play in this scene, as the three dead prisoners – Benson, Karls, and Popovich – take their names from key members of the crew.
Benson is named after Garrett Benson, the second assistant camera operator on the film.
Karls takes his name from Johnny Karls, who worked on the film as the first assistant camera operator.
Last but by no means least, Popovich is named after Con Air’s key grip, J. Michael Popovich.
1. Powers Boothe has an uncredited cameo as the speaker at Cameron Poe’s army leaving ceremony
In the opening moments, we hear an unseen military official singing the praises of the US Army Rangers, who we shortly learn count Nicolas Cage’s Cameron Poe among their numbers.
We never see the face of the presumably high-ranking military man giving this speech – but the voice might sound familiar.
That’s because the actor giving the speech is none other than the late Powers Boothe, one of the great man’s-man actors of the last 40 years.
In his later years Boothe appeared in TV’s Deadwood and made appearances in Sin City and The Avengers, before sadly passing away in 2017 from cancer aged 68.