The only term I often use to describe Nicolas Cage as an actor is “chameleon”. Cage is one of the few actors with the range to produce a banger in nearly every major genre in the film industry. He is perfectly able to match the energy of the film, whatever the style. Need a heartbreaking romance flick? I introduce you City of Angels. Do you want to laugh at your seat? Go give Raising Arizona a watch. For the horror we have mandy. For drama we have Pig. For adventure? national treasure That’s where it happens. I could go on and on with this list and about Cage’s ability to give it his all, even in less than stellar films. But today I land (no pun intended) straight into the action genre, to one of the best action movies of the 90s, and possibly of all time, Air conditioning.
*How can I live by Trisha Yearwood?
For those unfamiliar with this thrilling aviation-based action flick, Nicolas Cage plays Cameron Poe, a freshly discharged Army Ranger who returns home to Alabama to his pregnant wife. Poe immediately finds himself in jail after accidentally using the “nose in the brain” technique that we were all terrified of being a victim of as a child, on a man who tried to sexually assault his wife. Poe is unrealistically sentenced to eight years for manslaughter.
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At the end of his sentence, Poe is placed on a transfer plane with numerous other supermax inmates, including Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom (John Malkovich), Johnny 23 (Danny Trejo), and Garland Greene (Steve Buscemi). The inmates (minus Poe and his buddy Baby-O) hatch a plan to take control of the plane and escape, killing several guards in the meantime. Being a good guy at heart, it’s up to Poe to rescue the remaining guards and stop the violence while mingling with hardened criminals.
What a cast this movie has. In addition to the excellent talents listed above, Air conditioning features entertaining performances from Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle, Mykelti Williamson, John Cusack and Colm Meaney. Each criminal character has a fun, action-movie-style intro, where Cusack and Meaney expertly discuss their rap sheets to familiarize them with the audience. Trejo and Buscemi played particularly wicked characters. Malkovich stole the show with his almost silly, over-the-top villainy, winning the role over both Willem Dafoe and Mickey Rourke. However, the actor was reportedly frustrated with his character, due to script rewrites taking place even as the film was being filmed.
Cage’s portrayal of Poe is one of the most memorable things about the film. He traveled to Alabama to get coached on a realistic Alabamian accent, and while it didn’t go too well, it still helped bring out the character, alongside his long, flowing, ridiculous mullet . Cage was also able to maintain a physical appearance that he had not achieved at this point in his career. Between scenes, he was steadily lifting weights and dropping to just 3% body fat. It was by far the craziest he’d ever watched, but when the movie called for him not to sell getting shot in the arm and then using that same arm to do pull-ups on a fire truck at high speed, he had to look the part and face the physical obstacles. Cameron Poe was a truly memorable character.
However Air conditioning was considered one of Nic Cage’s “holy trinity” action films of the 90s, with Front/Off (which premiered a few weeks later), and The rock (1996), director Simon West didn’t have the long-running success as an action director that John Woo and Michael Bay had after those films. West would go on to lead Lara Croft: Tomb raid and The Expendables 2 like his next greatest films. Writer Scott Rosenberg (no relation) achieved slightly more success, again teaming up with Cage for I’m going in 60 seconds (2000) and wrote the Jumanji movies with Dwayne Johnson.
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Although some dialogue, and especially Cage’s accent, was a little harsh, there’s no denying that the special effects are impressive. Real planes, real helicopters and real explosions were used in a film that cost 75 million (for 1997) but grossed over 224 million worldwide at the box office. Normally such numbers would set up a popular action film for an immediate sequel, but many actors were uninterested, either due to the strenuous physical demands of the film or a general disinterest in the content. Air conditioning did, however, receive two Oscar nominations, one for Best Sound and one for Best Original Song.
For some reason, going back and watching a lot of the big 90s action hits usually doesn’t hit as hard as the slammers of the 80s, but Nic Cage had a way of keeping his performances timeless, and in apart from a few squeaky lines, he carried his films into the sweet spot, where they still hold, even long after their release. Stanley Goodspeed, Cameron Poe, Beaver Troy. These are characters that even a mention of, brings all the action-packed, explosive moments from their films crashing into our brains, and makes us wonder, “How do we live?” without Nic Cage.