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Cage returned the next summer in Con Air, which shares much that's idiotic with The Rock. Aggressively manipulative to a nearly experimental or genius degree, the pandering script and pummeling direction by commercial helmer Simon West almost make one nostalgic for the delicate, Dreyer-like touch of Michael Bay. In 1997, no actor had ever seemed buffer than Cage, still so memorably lanky as H.I. in Raising Arizona. That's all forgotten during Con Air's workout montage, in which Cage somehow finds about six different ways to do pushups (doing a handstand, sitting crosslegged, etc.). He employs a southern deadpan here, and though heinous, its strangeness doesn't rank with his most extreme accent choices (capped now and forever by whatever he's doing in Vampire's Kiss).
Cage's Cameron Poe is a paroled Army Ranger filching a ride home on a plane that's transferring several of the world's most dangerous criminals between prisons. It's cinematic WrestleMania, with the murdering, raping, psychopathic villains (led by John Malkovich's Cyrus the Virus) each getting their own badass introduction. Every oversaturated image, rapid cut, and laughable line (Malkovich to Danny Trejo's rapist: "If your dick jumps out of your pants, you jump out of this plane") is a brazen appeal to audience prejudice, and it's both fascinating and offensive. A dainty gay character is a revolting stereotype—when Cage goes to punch him, then slaps him instead, I remember huge audience laughs. That it knows its own preposterousness is Con Air's only possible defense.
Leagues more elegant than these Bruckheimer spectacles is Face/Off, another huge hit released the same month as Con Air, and the point at which Cage's career seemed most unstoppable. The Kane of experimental face-swapping surgery movies, Face/Off is John Woo and leads Cage and John Travolta having an indecent amount of fun with the ironic and Freudian possibilities that their plot device opens up. In Woo, Cage found a kindred spirit with the same schlock-blind, passionate engagement to performance, and the director brings the earnest operatics (classic Greek bombast, climactic doves) to match his actors' virtuosic, self-mocking showmanship. As good cop Sean Archer in terrorist Castor Troy's body, Cage "pretends" to enjoy snorting coke and grabbing ass at the Troy safehouse. His tears and wild-eyed inner torture are hilariously overdone, but also convincing—textbook Nic, and evidence in 1997 that "going mainstream" was going to have little to no effect on Cage's tacit understanding with his own insane actorly muse.