Have you ever been looking out of the window in the backseat of a parked car, or maybe from the center or rear of a passenger bus, and, upon noticing an adjacent vehicle shifting from your view, felt a panicked certainty that it was your vehicle that was drifting into motion? It’s more than just an optical illusion. It’s a kind of chronostasis, in which your mind’s perception of events stumbles over the actuality of the events. In truth, in this situation, it is more likely that a vehicle next to you was moving. Or perhaps two or more moving synchronously, creating the right information to tell you that the other vehicles were at rest and yours moving, when the truth is the opposite.

It’s a matter of contextualizing information; the stimuli of your observatory senses informs an untrue understanding from true measurements. It’s crazy stuff.

This is also how the best of Nic Cage’s movies tend to work.

In a his Great Movie write-up of the film Adaptation, Roger Ebert wrote this of Nic Cage:

There are often lists of the great living male movie stars: De Niro, Nicholson and Pacino, usually. How often do you see the name of Nicolas Cage? He should always be up there. He’s daring and fearless in his choice of roles, and unafraid to crawl out on a limb, saw it off and remain suspended in air. No one else can project inner trembling so effectively… He always seems so earnest. However improbable his character, he never winks at the audience. He is committed to the character with every atom and plays him as if he were him.

In terms of acting, Nic Cage only takes the wheel with the intention of going maximum speed into whatever direction he’s pointed. The pedal is always touching the floor. In his worst films, this makes things all the more noticeable. It starts as a risky proposition; moving with that much speed in a B-line through already unstable structures is almost guaranteed to make things worse. But, with the right maestro, Cage’s reckless ballet of atomic commitment can look something like a choreographed storm. His double duty in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, his disintegration in Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, and his paradoxical cartoonish humanism in the Coens’ Raising Arizona—all of the roles most commonly used to defend Cage as an actor of high merit create a sort of categorical duology.

There are critical darling movies where the audience barely sees the actor in the character and poorly received movies where Cage is destroying all of the scenery with his unhinged overacting–smacking baseball bats into trees, shouting about vampirism, or punching women in bear costumes. That is, there are great films starring Oscar Winner Nicolas Cage wherein great directors know how to build around the chaos, and there are “bad” films starring Nicolas Cage of Left Behind fame where you can almost feel a stunned filmmaker watching helplessly behind the camera.

But there is one important outlying movie that is difficult to classify not just within the two-sided Nic Cage canon, but in comparison against any other film of its era or any since.

Released twenty years ago today, Con Air landed as the first feature film from Director Simon West, whose previous work included the music video for Rick Astley’s now meme-famous Never Gonna Give You Up. West’s wide-eyed and juvenile lack of directorial modesty created a new space on Nic Cage’s resume. If Nic Cage’s best films represent a thoroughbred colt running with jockeyed precision in the Kentucky Derby and his worst films represent a bull bucking in a China shop, then Con Air represents a wild stallion charging with reckless abandon toward a sunset horizon pursued by a cameraman and a giant airliner. Where the first group of films say, “Work with him, move, adjust!” and the second group says, “Fuck it. I give up!” West’s Con Air says, “Untie him. Let’s give chase.”

Con Air opens with a clumsy montage sequence that sees Cameron Poe (Cage’s character) defend the honor of his pregnant wife Tricia (Monica Potter, who hilariously carries through the entire film an expression that says “What the fuck am I supposed to do with this material?”). Immediately, everything about this set-up serves Cage’s performance and Poe’s scenario more than common sense and logical storytelling. Poe here is quickly drawn as something of a militarized Forrest Gump, an honorably discharged military combat expert with a good ol’ Alabama boy “Aw, shucks” demeanor, a musclebound Mary Sue with an honorary degree from John McClane’s School of One Liners. An absurd sentence for his accidentally lethal fisticuffs session is handed down. Absurd sequences of prison riots and violence unfold while Nic Cage pens letters to his daughter (who, absurdly, he has never met because prison isn’t the right place for a young lady to meet her father). And then, at the end of his sentence, an absurd plan is hatched by the justice system, in which Poe will travel on an experimental airliner full of absurd stock villains to the point where he will be released into freedom. Of course, this is met with an even more absurd takeover of the plane by the convicts. And right there at the center, the most absurd element of all: Nic Cage believing 100% in his character and the story, with acting conviction typically reserved for prestige films.

There is no winking from Cage, no sly meta-textual indicators of self-awareness or genre acknowledgement. Just the same unbroken commitment to script that won him an Oscar in Leaving Las Vegas and critical adoration in Adaptation. It’s a bit of a cinematic marvel, one that I’ve only learned to appreciate more in subsequent viewings (I watch this movie far more often than I could bring myself to admit in print) seeing Cage commit and West use his entire film to test that commitment.

It’s particularly impressive given just how much West was afforded to throw at Cage. First, there’s the other onscreen talent. John Malkovich, who plays the cartoonish main villain Cyrus the Virus, reportedly grew quite frustrated with the constant tweaking of his character and lines in between takes. Dave Chappelle gave us our first onscreen look at the legendary Dave Chappelle as Pinball, which, as he explained on his 2006 Inside the Actor’s Studio, was a role created through his improvisation. Former teen-movie royalty John Cusack  starred as a resourceful and daring U.S. Marshall (and if IMDb trivia is to be believed, Cusack dislikes this film to the point where he refuses interview questions about it) and Steve Buscemi joins the party late as perhaps his career-creepiest turn as Garland Green. All of this top shelf talent employed to be the goofiest version of itself, at least in execution, to test the limit of Nic Cage’s unique approach to the exercise.

And that’s just the first level of testing. Cage is asked to keep his un-ironic badass righteousness turned all the way up while reacting to a flying 1967 Corvette Stingray, delivering the line “Tell her she’s my hummingbird,” and being threatened with a pistol held to the head of a stuffed bunny. (The bunny, incidentally, was an idea Cage himself developed for establishing a symbol for the relationship between Poe and his daughter.)

Buena Vista Pictures

But it’s easy to stop at measuring what the movie does to highlight Cage’s craft without turning back to view the inverse. Even more so than the conceptually unhinged Face/Off, which would open two weeks later marking a distinct over-the-top action stage in Cage’s filmography, Con Air serves as an exclamation point to a distinct era in action films. West is working here under the production of famed action lunatic Jerry Bruckheimer, who himself is taking on his first picture without his late partner Don Simpson, whose production credits included Top Gun, Days of Thunder, and The Rock. And the lineage is traceable, with Con Air being the inevitable conclusion to that all-or-nothing approach to high adrenaline, explosion-filled, often everyman-driven action exercise, an impulse with the increasingly testosterone-driven Die Hard series serving as the spinal column.

This type of film, at this point in the 1990s, had all but run its course; the special effects were maxed out in their impact and audiences were growing numb to just having more explosions added. The one-liners were becoming white noise or the ringing of a dull bell. West’s response to that fading charm? Move the film’s climax to Vegas and destroy an actual hotel (The Sands was scheduled for demolition, which changed the film’s entire planned climax of crash landing the plane in Washington D.C.) while continuing to zing a one-liner every minute. So, in a way, West’s first exercise was something like that massive and indulgent last meal you cook with everything in your refrigerator before moving permanently into a new a home and more sophisticated lifestyle. And, because Nic Cage is the host and young and reckless Simon West the chef, this final serving is somehow both glorious in its sincere appreciation for that former fading era and an amused postmodern evaluation of it. Much in the same way that LeAnn Rimes’ How Do I Live, which plays at the film’s embarrassingly satisfying conclusion, was nominated for both the Razzie Award for Worst Original Song and the Academy Award for Best Original Song. That’s just how this movie works.

And if a future Earth species or alien explorer ever stumbles upon the remains of some DVD or Blu-Ray shelf, there’s a 1:1,000,000 chance the first movie they’ll discover through their undoubtedly versatile image transfer technology will be Con Air. If that happens, they’ll probably note first that we were an exceptionally silly people of reckless invention and even more reckless destruction. They’ll be right about that. Then, they’ll likely observe that Nic Cage was for our people a mythologized deity, some moral and physical superhuman of many lives worshiped by our storytelling and art. In some ways, they’ll be right about that too.

Featured Image: Buena Vista Pictures