It was released theatrically on June 6, 1997 by Touchstone Pictures and was a box office success, grossing over $224 million against a production budget of $75 million. Despite this, the film received mixed reviews from critics, but praising Cage and the cast performances as well as its action sequences, stunts and the villain portrayed by Malkovich. The film also borrows its title from the nickname of the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System.
Cameron Poe, an honourably discharged Army Ranger, is convicted of manslaughter after killing a drunken man who tried to attack his pregnant wife Tricia. He is imprisoned for ten years, communicating with his newborn daughter Casey through letters. Eight years later, he is paroled and to fly out to Alabama onboard the Jailbird, a transport prison aircraft. He is accompanied by his diabetic inmate Mike “Baby-O” O’Dell, who is being transferred. The flight is overseen by U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin, who is approached by DEA agents Duncan Malloy and Willie Sims, the latter planning to go undercover onboard to get information from drug baron Francisco Cindino, who is to be picked up on route.
A number of inmates are being transferred to a new Supermax prison, including mass murderer William Bedford, rapist “Johnny 23” Baca, Black Guerrilla Family member Nathan “Diamond Dog” Jones, and criminal mastermind “Cyrus the Virus” Grissom. After taking off, inmate Joe “Pinball” Parker incites a riot, releasing Cyrus and Diamond Dog, taking over the plane, planning to land at Carson Airport as scheduled, pick up and transfer other prisoners, and then fly to a non-extradition country. Sims tries to take control of the plane but Cyrus kills him.
The transfer begins, most of the plane’s guards and the pilot forced to pose as inmates. Amongst the new passengers are Cindino, new pilot “Swamp Thing”, and serial killer Garland Greene. The authorities discover the hijacking upon finding evidence in Cyrus’ old cell, and a tape recorder placed with the disguised guards by Poe, but are unable to stop it from taking off. The inmates plan to land at Lerner Airport and transfer onto another plane. Poe finds Pinball’s corpse trapped in the landing gear, writing a message to Larkin on the body before throwing it out. Larkin learns of the news and heads out to Lerner with the National Guard. Bedford, raiding the cargo, discovers Poe’s identity, forcing Poe to kill him.
The Jailbird is grounded at Lerner, with no sign of the transfer aircraft. Poe leaves to find Baby-O some insulin shots, meeting Larkin, informing him of the situation. The duo discover Cindino planning to escape on a hidden private jet, Larkin sabotaging it as it takes off. Cyrus executes Cindino by igniting the crashed plane’s fuel. As the National Guard arrive, the inmates launch an assault on them, but Larkin defends the troops using a bulldozer as a makeshift shield. The inmates flee back onto the Jailbird and take flight. Johnny 23 tries to rape prison guard Sally Bishop, but Poe stops him.
Poe’s identity is revealed when Bedford’s body is found, Cyrus about to execute him and Baby-O when Larkin and Malloy arrive in attack helicopters, damaging the Jailbird’s fuel tank. Though Larkin orders the plane to land at McCarran International Airport, Swamp Thing is forced to land it on the Las Vegas Strip, causing mass destruction, killing numerous inmates including Johnny 23. Cyrus, Diamond Dog, and Swamp Thing escape on a fire truck, pursued by Poe and Larkin on police motorbikes, leading to the deaths of all three convicts.
Poe and Larkin form a friendship, just as Tricia and Casey arrive, Poe meeting his daughter for the first time and giving her the toy rabbit he bought for her. The only criminal unaccounted for is Garland, now living the high life as a Las Vegas gambler.
With second-unit work beginning on June 24, 1996, principal photography began shortly after at Salt Lake City, on July 1, 1996 and continued until October 29, 1996, at a number of locations. While most of the interiors of the Fairchild C-123 Provider transport aircraft were filmed in Hollywood Center Studios soundstage #7, Wendover Airport in Utah, as the stand in for the fictional Lerner Airfield, was used for the C-123 flying and taxi scenes. Director Simon West chose the barren and remote Wendover area "because it looked like the surface of the moon ... My idea was that it was perfect for the convicts who had been locked up for 10, 20, 30 years in little cells." The old wartime bomber base was also used for the aircraft boneyard scenes while the original swimming pool at the base was used in a scene where Garland Greene was talking to a young girl.
On August 29, 1996, Phillip Swartz, a welder employed by Special Effects Unlimited, a Los Angeles-based firm, was crushed to death at Wendover when a static model of the C-123 used in the film, fell on him. The film credits end with "In Memory of Phil Swartz". After filming, the filmmakers donated the Jailbird movie model used for the taxi scenes to the Historic Wendover Airfield Foundation and is currently on display at the ramp as an attraction for visitors.
Other filming locations included Ogden Airport where the exchange of prisoners is seen. The scene where the aircraft's left wing hits the Fender Stratocaster sign of Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the place where its premiere was held, was filmed using a remodeled guitar of the hotel and a Jailbird miniature model. The crash site was filmed in the Sands Hotel before its demolition on November 26, 1996. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer found the right spot for the climactic finale, originally planned for a crash at the White House, but Las Vegas was more in keeping with the dichotomy of convicts "cashing in." "We got very lucky ... The Sands was going to be demolished anyway. They blew up the tower on their own. We arranged to blow up the front of the building." The 2nd Street Tunnel in Los Angeles was also used for the tunnel chase scene near the end of the film.
The Jailbird movie model used during flight scenes in the film had a series of both military and private owners. In December 2003 it was sold to All West Freight Inc. in Delta Junction, Alaska. On August 1, 2010, the C-123 was destroyed when it crashed into Mount Healy within Denali National Park in Alaska. The three member flight crew was killed during the crash.
On the DVD commentary of Chappelle's Show, and later, on Inside the Actors Studio, Dave Chappelle recounted that he improvised most of his lines in Con Air.
Along with using several highly detailed models at 1/15th scale, and a multitude of military and private aircraft assembled for the desert boneyard scene, the following aircraft were prominently featured in Con Air:Beechcraft Model 18, no serial numbers visible, painted as "Uncle Bob's Scenic Tours" in scene at Wendover Airport, has the transponder planted on it.
Bell 206B JetRanger III (two helicopters, one marked N5739V), seen at DEA headquarters.
Bell AH-1F Cobra (two helicopters painted in military camouflage, one with "022734" visible on tail), used by Malloy to track the transponder-equipped aircraft and later catch the Jailbird.
Bell UH-1D Huey (helicopter painted in military camouflage), used by Malloy to track the transponder-equipped aircraft.
Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight (serial number unknown) seen briefly in Army Ranger rescue scene.
Cessna 150F (unknown markings), lands at "Lerner Airfield" in midst of the landing of the Jailbird.
Fairchild C-123K Provider N709RR (ex-USAF 54-0709, MSN#20158), used for the flying sequences (crashed after filming).
Fairchild C-123K Provider N94DT (ex-USAF 54-0706, MSN#20155), used for crash scene in Las Vegas (scrapped after filming) .
Fairchild C-123K Provider, painted as "N709RR", (ex-USAF 56-4361), used for static and taxi scenes at Wendover (left at Wendover Airport).
North American 75A Sabreliner (serial number "HK-723"), used for Cindino's escape.
Rockwell Aero Commander 500, seen in the hangar at Wendover Airport.
Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion (serial number unknown) seen briefly in Army Ranger rescue scene.
The film featured the LeAnn Rimes hit single "How Do I Live", performed by Trisha Yearwood for the film.
The Con Air soundtrack album omits two songs featured in the film: "How Do I Live", written by Diane Warren and performed by Trisha Yearwood and "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Although a key element of the film, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle noted, "The soundtrack kicks into loud, obtrusive gear ... (and) remains so loud throughout the picture that it practically functions as a distancing device."
- "Con Air Theme" – 1:34
- "Trisha" – 1:04
- "Carson City" – 3:05
- "Lear Crash" – 4:44
- "Lerner Landing" – 3:28
- "Romantic Chaos" – 1:23
- "The Takeover" – 3:52
- "The Discharge" – 1:09
- "Jailbirds" – 0:59
- "Cons Check Out Lerner" – 1:56
- "Poe Saves Cops" – 2:25
- "The Fight" – 0:23
- "Battle In The Boneyard" – 7:41
- "Poe Meets Larkin" – 1:16
- "Bedlam Larkin" – :49
- "Fire Truck Chase" – 4:22
- "Overture" – 4:19
The film was a box office hit, grossed $224,012,234 worldwide, of which $101,117,573 was in North America.
The film holds a 56% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an average rating of 5.7/10 based on 63 reviews. On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 52 out of 100, sampled from 22 reviews, indicating "mixed or average reviews." Roger Ebert awarded the film three out of four stars, saying it "moves smoothly and with visual style and verbal wit." Janet Maslin, reviewer for The New York Times considered Con Air an exemplar of the "thrill ride genre." In contrast, Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers decried the "flip, hip" and ultimately, "depressing ... pandering" present in the treatment. Andrew Johnston, reviewer for Time Out New York stated: "Leaving The Rock last summer, I thought it seemed physically impossible for a more over-the-top action movie to be made. That was pretty short-sighted of me, since it was only a matter of time until producer Jerry Bruckheimer topped himself as he does with the wildly entertaining Con Air."
Con Air was nominated for Best Original Song (for "How Do I Live") and Best Sound (Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell and Art Rochester) at the 70th Academy Awards, but lost to Titanic in both categories.
Conversely, the film won the Golden Raspberry Award for "Worst Reckless Disregard for Human Life and Public Property" at the 18th Golden Raspberry Awards. "How Do I Live" was nominated for both the Academy Award for Best Original Song and the Razzie Award Worst Original Song, but won neither.
In the webcomic Homestuck, the character John Egbert is a fan of the film, and there are numerous references to Con Air throughout the story. This includes published covers of the song "How Do I Live".
An unrated extended edition of the film was released on DVD on May 15, 2006. Jason Morgan of Cinemablend.com gave the film 1 star out of 5, claiming the added scenes slowed down the film, and criticizing the high price of the DVD as it featured no bonus content.
The theatrical version was released on Blu-ray Disc on January 8, 2008.