A Big Crash Bang Boom

"WELCOME TO CON Air,'' purrs the bald, brilliant psychopath Cyrus (The Virus) Grissom (John Malkovich), having just skyjacked a prison transport plane carrying a gaggle of the most twisted felons in the land. Also on board is the one man crazy and heroic enough to foil the escape: the just-paroled Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), heading home to deliver a stuffed bunny rabbit to the 8-year-old daughter he's never met.

Welcome to Con Air, another pumped-up, amphetamine-paced action movie from the producer of ""The Rock,'' Jerry Bruckheimer. In the production notes, Bruckheimer comments on screenwriter Scott Rosenberg's project. ""It was certainly great writing, but I instantly surmised that the script needed more heart. It had to be more character driven, which is a common theme throughout all my films, no matter what the action content might be.''

Maybe I missed something (the thunderous noise level makes it hard to catch all the character-driven subtleties of the script), but it did seem to be the ""action content'' that was grabbing the crowd. Dozens of seat-shaking explosions, a crash landing on the Vegas strip, attempted rapes, one bloody impalement and a motorcycle-and-firetruck chase are among the highlights, while the characterizations are all outlined in cartoon strokes. Steve Buscemi, shackled like Hannibal Lecter, is the comically depraved serial killer (""I like your work,'' says Malkovich to Buscemi). Ving Rhames is a militant murderer with a reputation for ""killing more men than cancer.'' While these bad dudes are bumping off U.S. marshals by the dozen, good guy Cage is improbably fixated on finding a syringe to save his pal (Mykelti Williamson) from a diabetic attack.

The saving grace of ""Con Air'' is its sense of its own absurdity. Rosenberg and director Simon West seem to know just how preposterous their story is: the ""heartfelt'' moments between Cage and his family are as over the top as the macho grand guignol of a planeload of raving psychopaths. ""This film is a story about redemption,'' says Bruckheimer, and let's hope he's pulling our legs. If you can't take ""Con Air'' as a big, noisy joke, why would you want to take it at all?