FILM OF THE WEEK: Stand back - this guy's packing irony

Con Air Today, 9pm FIVE

Near the beginning of Con Air, shortly before Nicolas Cage's ex- Army Ranger Cameron Poe beats the living trash out of some rednecks who have been harassing his wife (leaving one dead and our hero facing a seven- to-10 stretch), sweet Mrs Poe says to her man: "For a second there, I thought you were that guy again." If she meant the guy he was two years earlier, in sensitive, Oscar-winning form in Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas, then she couldn't have been more wrong. This is Cage as he became, via Michael Bay's The Rock, pumped up, proud as punch and willing to kick any butt that gets in his way.

Con Air is, I would respectively submit (and with due nods to the Die Hard series) the best action film around. It takes the slightest of storylines - a plane-full of maximum-risk convicts plan an escape and are chased by the authorities - and pushes the genre stereotypes beyond their limits, as much playing with the form as it is conforming to its requirements. The first film made by high-concept king Jerry Bruckheimer after the death of his production partner Don Simpson, it has a humour lacking in the duo's previous outings that is born out of knowing exactly what it is and what it isn't. And it's helped along by a cast of fine actors - John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, and Ving Rhames - camping up their psycho personas to the nines, plus nice, cuddly John Cusack as a prison service agent packing a piece and rolling with the punches.

Where the story happens and how it came to be are of little consequence - this is an exercise in rhythm and one-liners. In the fastest-cutting sequences - a shoot-out at a desert airfield and in the film's Las Vegas denouement - I lost count of the edits and lost track of where the explosions, gunfire and screams were coming from. Director Simon West is Bruckheimer's creature, less auteur than animateur, and scriptwriter Scott Rosenberg has his tongue so firmly planted in his cheek that it's nearly sticking out of the opposite ear. "They're talking to Denzel for the movie," says someone of Rhames's murderous Diamond Dog, who has written prize-winning novels in jail. "Love your work," says Malkovich to Buscemi mid-flight.

And where else could you get to see a diminutive, Hispanic, transvestite psycho-killer sashaying her ass aboard the wreck of a flying prison to the strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama"? As Steve Buscemi so neatly puts it: "Define irony... A bunch of idiots dancing on a plane to a song made famous by a band that died in a plane crash."

So don't say it's not art just because its artfulness is to the fore. And don't say that it's less worthy just because it doesn't pay dues to the "feminine" side of our natures - I have a list as long as my arm of women who love this movie for its sheer relentless invention and wit. Remember, it's not meant to be real. It's a film.

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