Twenty years ago, the world was bestowed a magical gift in the form of "Con Air," an action thriller so over-the-top and nonsensical that a longer, more methodically paced "directors cut" made it even more confusing. The film starred Nicolas Cage (back when his post-Oscar-win action movie streak was a novelty) as Cameron Poe (!), a disgraced Army Ranger sentenced to serious jail time after defending his pregnant wife from attackers (this makes no sense whatsoever). When his ride home, the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System aka "Con Air," gets hijacked by a bunch of villainous freaks, among them Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich), The Marietta Mangler (Steve Buscemi), Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames) and Pinball (Dave Chapelle), he's forced to do his best to get the situation under control and aid US Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack) in the safe containment of the situation.

Of course, everything goes to hell, in the most spectacularly violent and least plausible way possible. And the movie, which has the logline of one of those action movies that premieres on Cinemax on Friday night, is surprisingly handsome (British cinematographer David Tattersall, known for his longstanding relationship with George Lucas, shot it) and gleefully entertaining. It was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who, in 1997, had his hand so firmly on the pulse of the American people that he could have probably been elected to office.

"Con Air" is crazy. That much we know. But what's pretty certifiable is that Disney (who produced the movie -- more on that in a minute) will never make another movie as crazy ever again.

First, an explanation about the whole Disney thing, especially when it comes to a movie that has a character named "Johnny-23," named for the amount of women he raped before being sent to prison. In the early 1980s, the Walt Disney Company's cinematic output was faltering. Walt had died in 1966 and, honestly, the company had been starved for hits ever since (think about it). In 1984, then-CEO Ron Miller, who was Walt's son-in-law (he was married to Walt's daughter, Diane), started Touchstone Pictures as a label that could release PG-rated movies since Disney only put out exclusively G-rated affairs. Their first film was "Splash," which was a huge hit, and in 1986 they released "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," the first R-rated Disney film. In 1989, another imprint, Hollywood Pictures, would be developed by Disney and released everything from Bruce Willis erotic thriller "Color of Night" to prestige pictures, like "Quiz Show," "Evita," and "Nixon." In 1993 Disney bought Miramax (which also gave way to Dimension Films), which means that "Trainspotting," "Pulp Fiction," and "Priest" are all Disney movies. I'm sorry if your childhood is ruined; try not to think of Snow White shooting up.What movies fell into which offshoot remains hazy, although Touchstone seems to have had a more populist bent, while Hollywood was more niche and genre-oriented, and Miramax was basically whatever Bob and Harvey Weinstein wanted.

When Bob Iger took over the company following Michael Eisner's tenure, he began cutting away at what he felt were unnecessary lines of business. Iger wanted to streamline everything and centralize it under a single brand; Walt Disney Pictures wasn't even used anymore. Everything was simply Disney. It's easy to see why he did it, he wanted to easily establish what Disney meant and reinforce that meaning through the product. There wouldn't be confusion over Touchstone versus Hollywood versus Miramax versus Disney, there'd just be Disney. And you'd know what you got when you showed up for a Disney movie, just like you'd know what to expect from a Disney Park or a Disney Cruise.

That meant Touchstone, Miramax and Hollywood all went away, only resurrected for certain individual movies (like when Disney was releasing DreamWorks' live-action slate) but without a continuous development slate. These shingles were supposed to be where Disney could release riskier movies and develop filmmakers who didn't fit within the core Disney brand but that all went away. There'd be no more R-rated releases, only films that appealed to all "four quadrants" of moviegoers. That meant a violent, profanity-filled action-thriller would never be developed, let alone green lit and produced.

Another reason why Disney will never again make a movie as crazy as "Con Air" is that producer Bruckheimer, who has shepherded such hits as "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "National Treasure" through the studio, has handled just as many costly flops, things like "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time," "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (again with Cage), and "The Lone Ranger." Bruckheimer's relationship with Disney has frayed; he no longer has a production shingle at the studio and now only produces the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films for the company. Ever wonder why there was never a third "National Treasure" movie? Well, it has a lot to do with the strained relationship between Disney and Bruckheimer.And maybe the most important reason "Con Air" would never get released today is that it is terribly offensive. The screenplay by Scott Rosenberg isn't exactly filled with nuance and subtlety, but there are also things that would just be inadmissible to a major studio movie in this day and age (and this even goes beyond the "Johnny-23" character). Female characters are basically relegated to victims (I believe there's a female guard), potential victims (like the small girl you think Buscemi is going to kill), or wallpaper (like Julia Roberts lookalike Monica Potter as Cage's estranged wife).

Even more problematic is the character of Ramon "Sally-Can't Dance" Martinez, played by Renoly Santiago. If you can't tell by the colorful nickname, this is a character who is flamboyantly gay and a cross-dresser, and if the other characters are cartoons, then he's something that's doodled on a cocktail napkin -- barely recognizable as a character at all. It could be argued that the character works in the context of the super-sized world of the film, but it would also be something that would prevent the film from being made today.

So yes, "Con Air," that towering achievement of insanity, is the rare cultural relic that will never be able to be duplicated or improved upon. It is of its time, for sure, and was only able to exist because a few key factors came together to make it so. These days, Disney is about appealing to everyone and "Con Air," while conventionally mainstream, would never achieve liftoff.

Con Air Movie Poster
Con Air
R1997
Based on 23 critics

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