The story of Cameron Poe, a recently paroled ex-Army Ranger who must battle psychopaths who have hijacked a prison transport plane, is the story of all of us. That's why Con Air has been an action favorite since it was released 18 years ago, on June 6, 1997—that and the lunatic performances by Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, and a plane full of others. Before your next viewing, put the bunny back in the box and enjoy these behind-the-scenes details you may not have heard before.
1. It was director Simon West's first film, but you'd probably seen his work before.
In fact, you've probably seen at least one thing West directed against your will. The Englishman directed many TV commercials for A-list companies like McDonald's and Pepsi. Before that, he made the video for Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up," the first few seconds of which have been viewed by anyone who's ever been Rickrolled.
2. The transport system the movie is about was pretty new at the time.
The Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (or JPATS) was formed in 1995. It combined and simplified systems that were previously run by the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and was immediately nicknamed "Con Air." Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg tagged along on a few flights for research purposes, and evidently survived the experience. Though he did note that "it was very unsettling, and a bit terrifying."
3. It was nominated for two Oscars!
for Best Original Song ("How Do I Live") and for Best Sound, but lost 'em both to Titanic, like everything else that year. Oh, and the song was also nominated for Worst Song at the Razzies (but lost there too, to the entire score from The Postman). Con Air did win the Razzie for Worst Reckless Disregard for Human Life and Public Property—quite an achievement, considering Volcano, Turbulence, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and Batman & Robin were also nominated.
4. Dave Chappelle improvised most of his lines.
Actually, that's probably not surprising to anyone who has seen his comedy. But he confirmed it on Inside the Actors Studio in 2006.
5. Someone died while making the movie.
On the set in Wendover, Utah (where the desert scenes in the second half of the film were shot), a 39-year-old welder named Phillip Swartz was killed when a plane he was working on fell over on him. The closing credits include a mention in his honor.
6. John Cusack and Steve Buscemi's characters were written with them in mind.
The screenwriter, Scott Rosenberg, was friends with the actors, and he always wanted Cusack for the U.S. Marshal and Buscemi for the serial killer.
7. That was a real Las Vegas casino they smashed up at the end of the movie.
The film's memorable climax, which has the Con Air plane landing in Vegas and crashing through the front of a casino, benefited from real-life serendipity: the Sands Hotel was about to be demolished. The filmmakers simply had to persuade the hotel's owners to wait a few weeks and let them help with the destruction. They only got one take, obviously. Good thing they nailed it. (The plane hitting the giant neon guitar at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino was accomplished using models, though.)
8. The director's semi-serious idea for a sequel would be set in space.
Simon West told an interviewer in 2014 that he would do a sequel "if it was completely turned on its head. Con Air in space, for example—a studio version where they're all robots, or the convicts are reanimated as super-convicts, or where the good guys are bad guys and the bad guys are good guys. Something shocking. If it was clever writing, it could work." The best thing about this idea is that it's clearly not too insane for Nicolas Cage to say yes to it.
9. Nic Cage did most of his own stunts.
In a making-of TV special, Cage said: "Whether I wanted to or not, I did most of my own stunts in this movie. There were explosions five feet behind me, flaming helicopters dropping right behind me, ball-bearing bullets over my head. So there was a level of intensity, fear, you might say."
10. It was the first movie Jerry Bruckheimer produced after the death of his long-time collaborator Don Simpson.
Hollywood uber-producers Bruckheimer and Simpson made 11 movies together—including Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, and Days of Thunder—before Simpson's drug-related death on January 19, 1996. Their final project, The Rock, was in production at the time, and Bruckheimer had already declared his intention not to work with the troubled Simpson anymore after that.
11. Most of it was filmed in Utah.
The Oakland Airport and the U.S. Marshals' hangar were actually at Salt Lake City International Airport. A smaller airport in Ogden, Utah (about 40 miles north of SLC), stood in for Carson City, where the prisoner exchange happens. And the abandoned airstrip supposedly found in Death Valley was actually in the vast salt flats of western Utah, near the small town of Wendover that straddles the Utah/Nevada border. West said he chose that location "because it looked like the surface of the moon."
12. The Las Vegas climax was originally set at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Bruckheimer said one version of the script had the plane crashing into the White House. "I said the guys would really rather crash into Las Vegas," Bruckheimer said—which makes more sense anyway, as Vegas is much closer to the plane's starting point of Oakland.
13. It inspired a very unusual bit of customer service at a San Antonio hotel.
Earlier this year, when the concierge at San Antonio's Hotel Indigo texted a guest after check-in to ask if she needed anything, she jokingly requested "a framed picture of Nicholas [sic] Cage in Con Air on my bed by 6." (Some fan she is, not knowing he spells it without the "h"!) Sure enough, the hotel staff delivered exactly that, and followed up on subsequent Cage-related requests as well.
14. As of this writing, the three men who shared the Oscar nomination for best sound have 41 Oscar nominations among them—and no wins.
Greg P. Russell has 16 noms (including Skyfall, Spider-Man, and Pearl Harbor); Art Rochester has five (including The Conversation and Clear and Present Danger); and Kevin O'Connell has 20 (including Dune, Top Gun, A Few Good Men, and Transformers). O'Connell is actually the record-holder for most Oscar nominations without a win. Someday, Kevin! Someday ...
15. Cage helped flesh out his character, including the idea of the stuffed bunny rabbit.
When an interviewer guessed that the bunny had been Cage's idea, he copped to it: "I'm proud of that. The whole bunny thing was mine ... I wanted that to be symbolic of all the pain and loss he had gone through just for protecting his pregnant wife—protecting her too well, and getting thrown into prison." Cage said he also contributed the detail of Cameron Poe being a Southerner ("they have a strong sense of chivalry when it comes to women").