June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi

You can tell summer’s nearly here because the movies have suddenly gotten louder. It’s as if theaters jack up their decibel levels to match the rising temperatures. Con Air, a slick, violent, pumped-up action picture about a group of seriously nasty convicts who hijack the prison plane that’s carrying them, is not only aurally loud, it’s loud in every sense of the word.

Con Air is this summer’s equivalent to last summer’s aggressively entertaining The Rock, which should surprise no one since the two movies share a leading man (Cage), a producer (Jerry Bruckheimer) and a preternatural fondness for blowing anything and everything sky-high. Cage stars here as an ex-Army Ranger who defends his wife by killing a bully in a bar brawl. He serves eight years in prison, passing the time learning Spanish (“My wife and I will have our margaritas on the yacht” goes one lesson), doing origami and bulking up to Schwarzeneggerian proportions. Upon being paroled, he innocently hitches a ride home on the fateful plane. Although Cage has a chance to escape early on, he nobly stays on board to aid ailing prison buddy Mykelti Williamson (see story, page 87), protect female guard Rachel Ticotin, who is taken hostage, and—as he modestly puts it—”save the day.”

As that remark suggests, no one in Con Air is taking either the plot or their characters too seriously, which is just as well given the low level of plausibility here. With long locks and a goatee, Cage looks a lot like a traditional Sunday school portrait of Jesus (if Jesus had been spending a lot of time in the weight room), and he does yet another of his eccentric, ironic action hero turns. After Leaving Las Vegas, watching Cage toy with this kind of role is like listening to Einstein go through his multiplication tables. Malkovich and Buscemi are the best of the bad guys, while Cusack, playing a frustrated federal marshal, represents the law effectively. The movie’s final Las Vegas segment is long by a few too many scenes, but maybe the filmmakers were just trying to use up all the explosives in the budget. (R)

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