High Concept
or,
How I Learned Everything I Needed To Know About Carl Jung From Con Air

"Nice goin' son. Not only did you not save this dude's life. You done made best friends with Cyrus the damn Virus!"

Ah, Con Air. One of Jerry Bruckheimer's most successful movies under the Orwellian category of "High Concept", a term that sounds like it should mean something like "philosophically profound" or "drug-inspired" but rather refers to a type of action film whose entire plot can be summed up in one sentence with no loss of information. Hence The Rock (A team of counterterrorists have to break into Alcatraz!), Gone in 60 Seconds (A guy has to steal 50 cars in one night!) and Con Air (A bunch of dangerous convicts hijack a plane!)

Con Air is one of my guilty pleasures - and there really is a lot of guilt there, because it's a bad, awful, horrible movie, full of terrible acting, cringeworthy dialogue, unrealistic characters, zero plot and unbelievable, physics-defying action. However, when you put the whole package together, Con Air is quite paradoxically funny and almost surreal, as if the lack of realism was being deliberately played up. Why would they do such a thing, you wonder? What is Jerry trying to focus your attention on? I should note at this point that I'm going to assume for the purposes of this review that Jerry Bruckheimer wrote, directed and had full creative control over Con Air, as opposed to simply producing it. That way I can act like it's a work of art by one person. If you have a problem with this, please /msg me with a good reason why I should care.

Let's step back a moment and consider one of the Bad Guys. We know from the outset who the good and the bad guys are, because as each convict steps on to the plane that they will later hijack, they are helpfully introduced to us via the subtle narrative device of one FBI agent listing their name and defining characteristics. The bad guy in question is Cyrus Grissom, also known as Cyrus The Virus, played by John Malkovich

First of all, there's his nickname. As a notorious criminal with a nickname of Cyrus the Virus, you'd naturally expect him to be a hacker, or as a distant possibility, a terrorist specializing in biological weapons. This is high concept after all - nothing irrelevant to the plot is ever discussed. Every name, every conversation has some significance. If someone mentions they are diabetic, later on there will be a scene in which this becomes relevant. Not just relevant in the sense that it affects that character, but relevant to the plot as a whole (in this case, as motivation). If a Bad Guy is a notorious rapist, you know he's going to try and rape someone later on in the movie. It is inevitabubble, as a city full of Agent Smiths said to Neo one rainy day.

So why Cyrus the Virus? All right, so it sounds cool. Virus rhymes with Cyrus. However, bear in mind that the name Cyrus itself is highly unusual, and there is perhaps a stronger argument suggesting that Cyrus was chosen because it rhymes with Virus. "Virus" is a word that catches the imagination and suggests possible plot details to follow. "Cyrus" simply rhymes with it. He wasn't called Cyrus the Iris (although that would have been a cool nickname for Sauron in The Lord of the Rings) or Cyrus Papyrus. The word Virus has been given to us and it must mean something.

Cyrus turns out to be a criminal mastermind of an unspecified type - presumably, this is just his career. "Yes, I mastermind stuff. I am a mastermind." Because he's played by John Malkovich, we know he's going to get out of that cage they put him in in the beginning, and he's going to do nasty stuff to people. John Malkovich doesn't leave people alone, he gets all up in their face and does stuff to them until they cry. Cyrus's masterplan is to hijack the transport plane, after blowing up his jail cell which he has booby-trapped. This is one of the entrances to a new understanding of Cyrus's personality. He could have simply destroyed all the materials related to his conspiracy and left his cell neat and tidy, but instead he leaves clues. He rigs a bomb. The idea that something may be amiss with the flight occurs to the FBI agents when Cyrus's cell explodes. They've been trained to watch out for telltale clues like this. So, what do we know?

Cyrus wants to be caught. He must find his opposite, the Good Guy. Like VGER, Cyrus must merge in order to be complete.

Various clues are scattered throughout the film, leading us to the idea that Cyrus's contagion exists somewhere other than in his cool-sounding nickname. For a start, our hero (played with a disarming dead-eyed brainlessness by Nicolas Cage) has another puzzling name that is never explained: Cameron Poe. Do you know anyone called "Poe"? I don't. In my mind, the only familiar Poe is Edgar Allen Poe who died very young of mysterious causes, among which Wikipedia lists "alcohol, brain congestion, cholera, drugs, heart disease, rabies, suicide, tuberculosis, and other agents". That's a lot of stuff to go wrong with one person. Maybe he caught a virus? Remember, nothing in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie is there by accident. If someone or something is extraneous to the plot, they are never introduced, or are given utterly generic names so as not to distract the ADHD-sufferers sitting in the cinema from the explosions. Jerry wouldn't name his central character after a dark, weird horror writer who died of a mysterious disease, without a specific reason for doing so. Poe is also credited with having invented the genre of detective fiction, another clue that we should look deeper.

Another clue is given in the quote at the top of this writeup. When Poe catches Cyrus's attention by helping him inadvertently at the start of the movie, an inexplicable connection seems to be made between them. Poe doesn't kill anyone; all he does is talk to an agent to try to get him to drop his weapon, following which the agent is distracted and one of the other cons jumps him. Other cons played far greater roles in the seizure of the plane, but Cyrus the Virus singles Poe alone out for praise, despite the fact that he didn't do anything. Why?

Cyrus has identified his opposite and his inner being yearns to merge.

When Poe sits back down, his companion utters the line "Nice goin' son. Not only did you not save this dude's life. You done made best friends with Cyrus the damn Virus!" He thinks it's a very bad thing. In normal circumstances, between members of the prison fraternity, in circumstances where a bunch of people have just been killed by plane hijackers, whose gang you are not part of, you would expect that making friends with the lead hijacker was a very prudent, perhaps even life-preserving move. But considerations like this have been erased. The message is clear: Poe has placed himself in greater danger (by making friends with the Virus) than he was before, when he was merely caught up in the bloody takeover of a federal transport aircraft. Another mystery.

We are introduced, along the way, to another bad guy, Garland Greene, a cannibalistic psychopath played by Steve Buscemi, who obviously happened along to the auditions when attending a creepy guys convention with Malkovich and Cage. Interestingly, Greene is portrayed quite ambiguously, despite a very dramatic introduction when he is wheeled into the plane in a Hannibal Lecter-type restraining cage. He seems to be a quiet, polite and intelligent person, who speaks in an even tone of voice whether he's discussing driving through 3 American states wearing his ex-girlfriend's head as a hat, or the Freudian makeup of the lead hijackers. Greene is a psychopath, you see, not an evil person like Cyrus. Psychopaths are characterized by a complete lack of empathy and connection to others, and do not tend to think of themselves as "bad" much of the time, except that they are aware that others may perceive them that way. Cyrus, on the other hand, is fully aware of his own nature. This becomes obvious towards the end of the film when he's about to kill Cameron Poe, and wants to have a little talk with him before he does. He tells Poe that

"Before I kill you, Poe, I just want you to know that the last thing that little Casey Poe ever gets to smell will be my stinking breath."

At first glance this looks to be your standard last-minute impotent threat. After all, the plane has crashed, the cops are all over the place, the game is up, and Cyrus is definitely not going to be able to find and kill Cameron Poe's daughter. However, what's intersting is the level of self-awareness displayed by Cyrus here. After all, he can't smell his own breath. What we see here is that Cyrus's internal self-image encompasses an idea of himself as having stinking breath, in the perception of others. Presumably, also, having received this feedback in the past, maybe in bed ("Damn, Cyrus, get offa me, your breath stinks!"), Cyrus had a choice - he could have started brushing his teeth, or he could have said "My breath doesn't stink, you lying bitch!" and entered denial. His choice was different - he clearly said to himself "My breath stinks, and I revel in it, motherfuckers!".

Cyrus has accepted and embraced his demonic nature, thereby identifying himself not with the archetype of the monster (typified in this film by Garland Greene) but the Devil, an altogether more powerful archetype, but one also capable of redemption, as the monster is. The Devil, having once been an angel, and having tasted good, longs forever to merge with that which he has rejected. And Poe, for his part, in some way also recognizes the weird connection between himself and Cyrus. Without wishing to, he has become infected by The Virus of the Opposite. How else can we account for the fact that after the plane has crashed, when Cyrus is escaping, instead of running to safety and to his family and thanking his household gods that he's still alive, Cameron Poe chases Cyrus the Virus? Poe risks his life to catch up to this dangerous, evil man, for one reason alone that I can think of:

Like Cyrus, Poe must find his opposite. Like VGER, Poe must merge in order to be complete. He must redeem Cyrus by giving him a warrior's death, and in so doing, complete his own psychological journey out of the prison underworld by absorbing and integrating his own shadow. If Cyrus were to be caught by the Feds he would simply be returned to prison, and no completion would be possible for either of them. Poe chases after Cyrus for the same reason that Cyrus befriended Poe. Taijitu. The circle must complete in order to begin again.

A common narrative device is for the main theme (in this case, infection with the virus of the opposite, followed by integration and redemption) to be echoed in a subplot - Shakespeare used this device frequently, and Bruckheimer follows his lead, elevating Con Air to High Concept in a truly higher sense. The final scene of the movie shows Garland Greene as the sole escapee from the group of former bad guys. Earlier in the movie, there was an interlude in which we saw Garland Greene meet and talk to a small child. Given the fact that he is a cannibalistic psychopath, the audience expects the worst, with genuine discomfort. This is Hollywood. This is Jerry Bruckheimer. Is he really going to have Steve Buscemi eat a small, cute child, even off-screen? However, our fears are unfounded. Garland spares the child, after a long scene in which he is fascinated with her. At least 3 or 4 minutes are spent on this - precious minutes which could be filled with so many explosions or corny one-liners that it beggars belief that Bruckheimer didn't edit it out - unless, of course, it was integral to the plot. Not the high-concept plot (cons steal plane) but the High Concept plot concerning the integration of opposites. Garland spares the child, who he has recognized as both his reflection and his opposite, and in so doing is redeemed.

In his very next movie after Con Air, John Malkovich plays Athos in The Man in the Iron Mask - a heroic good guy. In his very next movie after Con Air, Nicolas Cage plays Castor Troy, a sociopathic bad guy. In both of these roles, the actors were playing against type. Coincidence?

Or did they identify their opposites and merge in the externalized collective unconscious of our mass media?


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