Popcorn Love: Steve Buscemi in Con Air (1997)
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 18, 2008
Despite being more in my wheelhouse (late-90s Bruckheimer-fleeced action flick starring Nicolas Cage + who’s who That Guy supporting cast) than just about any other movie in existence, I’m not actually sure when the last time I saw Con Air was. Truth is, I never really considered it the equal of Broken Arrow, Face/Off or The Rock, to name just a few of its classic peers, so I’ve been slacking on watching its reruns on TNT and USA and the like. Anyway, watching it for the first time in however long, I had forgotten about a lot of things. How awful Nicolas Cage’s southern accent was, for instance. Or what a high percentage of the movie John Cusack seems to spend jumping out of the way of things (or how most of the rest of the time, he’s got an “I’m just as surprised as you that I’m in this movie” look on his face). Or how unbelievably ridiculous some of the one-liners are, as when a disgraced felon pleads for his life with John Malkovich’s character Cyrus “The Virus” Girssom, begging “Cy–,” and Grissom finishes his thought, “-annora,” lighting him on fire.
One thing I remembered perfectly, however, was how creepy and hilarious Steve Buscemi is in this movie as mass-murderer Garland Greene. For a relatively big star (at least compared to perpetually knife-wielding badass Mexican Danny Trejo and perpetually-mustachioed badass MC Gainey), he doesn’t get too many on-screen minutes–that clip above compiles all of ’em, and it’s barely five and a half minutes long. But even amidst a collection of some of the baddest dudes in film history (besides Malkovich, Trejo and Gainey, there’s Ving Rhames, Nick Chinlund, and, uh, Dave Chappelle), it’s the un-muscled, facial hair-devoid Buscemi who is the villain that makes the strongest impression. Not bad for a performance where he never really does anything all that villainous.
Garland Greene is introduced at first like the most dangerous man on the planet, dressed in full restraints, handled by guards like a glass case full of plutonium and given a kind of hushed-whisper respect to make Hannibal Lecter jealous. Cameron Poe, Cage’s character, learns via Bubba from Forrest Gump that Greene’s rep is built on his 30-person murdering spree, diced about in fashion that “makes the Manson Family look like the Partridge Family.” Poe isn’t too impressed, but definitely at least slightly unnerved to be sitting not all that far from Greene on the prisoner transfer flight. Later, after the prisoners take over the plane and turn it into the titular airline, Grissom (the de facto flight captain) demands Greene’s release, professing to be a “love [his] work.”
As Greene’s restraints are removed, he settles into a seat next to Poe, quipping at him in the sarcastic, overly talkative way we’re used to seeing from Buscemi, just with a slightly more psychotic bent. He’s not scary, per se–even Cage’s demeanor while listening to him is more along the lines of passenger irritaiton at being seated next to a big gabber than it is of cowering fear–but the props he’s been given from Grissom and the cops makes his relatively calm demeanor seem somewhat unnerving. It’s obvious that it’s only going to be a matter of time before we see what exactly it is that makes Garland such a certifiable bad dude.
When the plane lands to attempt to find new transportation, it seems like we’re finally going to see Greene in his purest form. As he wanders away from the troupe, he finds a young girl playing with her dolls and tea set, and in the audience, you’re thinking here we go. As the two’s conversation becomes increasingly ominous (“Are you sick?” “…I am sick.” “Do you take medicine?” “There is no medicine for what I have”), you’re just waiting for him to reach across the table and start bashing her head in, or worse. Then, when it seems things couldn’t get any tenser, the girl persuades Garland to sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”–already one of the creepiest songs in history–with her, as the background music gets darker and the camera angles become more askance.
The camera cuts away, the action shifts elsewhere, and you assume that director Simon West just didn’t have the heart to show you the deplorable acts of evil Greene performed on the little girl, but that you’ll somehow be informed of it later. Yet, as Con Air takes off for a second time, out trots the little girl, perfectly unharmed, to wave goodbye at Greene as he flies away. He gets one more line while on board, commenting about the irony of the convicts dancing to “Sweet Home Alabama” in flight when much of Skynyrd died in a plane crash. The lat time you see him is the last thing you see in the whole movie, indeed, Buscemi gets the movie’s last line, answering that yes, he does feel lucky [to have been the one convict besides Poe to survive the ordeal].
What’s really remarkable about this performance is that Steve Buscemi achieves a truly enviable level of skin-crawling weirdness by basically just acting like Steve Buscemi. Despite all the badass-ness attributed to him throughout the movie, he never actually does much of anything, and at the end, the movie basically winks at him, like “oh Garland, you loveable child-murdering scamp.” Even when he talks about wearing a girl’s head as a hat, he doesn’t really sound much different from Carl Showalter talking about pancakes in Fargo. Any creepiness that actually emerges from his character is attributable almost entirely to Buscemi himself–his gaunt, pale figure and sullen blue eyes, his seemingly meek but clearly somewhat unbalanced demeanor, and the credit he had gained by playing a lifetime’s worth of lowlifes prior to Con Air.
Notably, Buscemi would go on to play a character with a somewhat reversed trajectory as Rockhound in Armageddon, Bruckheimer’s next blockbuster. In that one, he starts out as a probably creepy but generally genial guy, and turns into a psychotic, near-murderer by the end. Less creepy, just as funny.