Nicolas Cage has the easiest job in the world. Deemed perfect for any deep-toned, showy role that exploits his hooded gaze and amused Elvis sneer, Cage lets the character’s psychology do the acting while leveling his goofy-serious good looks in our direction. They give Oscars to the people who play those parts, whoever those people may be.

In Simon West’s totally cool Con Air, Cage acts mostly with his hair, but it’s great hair. Long and unkempt, it reads “rebel” to those who see him as another filthy prisoner, but “poet” to the audience, who have watched Cameron Poe, do-right Army Ranger, accidentally kill the peckerwood scum who was menacing Poe’s angel wife, get sent up, and serenely pass his sentence learning Spanish and origami. (Neither of which will come in handy later, even when Poe must call upon all his ingenuity in various dangerous situations; proof that origami is as useless as you always suspected.)

When paroled, Poe is loaded onto the Jailbird, property of the U.S. Marshals Service, as a kind of cargo—he’s just going home; the real passengers are the most twisted and hardened criminals, “the worst of the worst,” being transferred to a new super-maximum-security joint. Led by Cyrus Grissom (John Malkovich), a skinheaded psycho on, as Poe accurately points out, a power trip, the cons hijack the plane and slaughter the guards, rerouting the Jailbird for freedom, somewhere Poe might be able to get some use from his textbook Spanish. But instead he plays the hero, masquerading as a fellow animal to appease the hijackers while working in secret collusion with Marshal Larkin (John Cusack, kind of beige in this upright role).

Like its lead character, Con Air pretends to be big, bad, and stupid—an action pic with midair danger and colorful baddies pitted against dull good guys—but it attempts, and achieves, much more. The cast is an indie wet dream that, aside from Cage, Malkovich, and Cusack, includes Ving Rhames as a murderous black separatist who calls himself Diamond Dog, comic Dave Chappelle as the hapless casualty Pinball, Steve Buscemi as serial killer Garland Greene, and Irish actor Colm Meaney as a bellowing, bloodthirsty U.S. marshal.

Con Air also has indie values—Scott Rosenberg’s script is short on the wise-guy remarks and long on blunt language, nervous humor, and class resentments and presumptions. Prison hierarchy is acknowledged by the passengers’ shunning of the serial rapist on board, and the black criminals make reference to the white criminals’ inevitable trailers. And they are all men, too; that is, when a piece of hardened Dixie trash calling himself Swamp Thing is in the pilot’s seat, the passengers are just as terrified of dying as any businessman hitting turbulence on his way to Omaha.

The script takes care not to blur the cons into one muscular, mean-talking psycho. Cyrus is as crazy-smart as they come, but his language has an oddly genteel aspect. He was a state ward for life; even his threats seem book-learned. And Malkovich has patented this role while not exhausting it—he has a tight little smile of recognition that is beyond perfect. Even the guards get off fancy lines, like one fat, swaggering Boss Hogg type who announces the in-flight movie: “I’ll Never Make Love to a Woman on the Beach Again, preceded by the short, No More Steak for Me, Ever.”

The hijacked plane lands in a Carson City sandstorm to offload dead weight and take on a fresh batch of psychos, including Buscemi’s Garland in a Hannibal Lecter get-up. Garland is the one character whose potential the movie throws away entirely. He’s inclined to wax philosophical on board, a tired gimmick, and Poe, for whom moments of levity are actually painful, grimaces through Garland’s discourses on irony and compassion. There is a scene full of eerie menace in which the serial killer and a plain little girl sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” while sitting in an empty swimming pool at the edge of a blasted desert junkyard. But Garland’s story goes nowhere, and the character provides a larky coda that is as nonsensical as it is grotesque.

But most of all, things blow up, and West isn’t just content to let loose the fireballs—though there are fireballs aplenty—he insists on showers of sparks, sizzling, golden fireworks displays in every scene. The sandstorm landing is just a lagniappe—the subsequent landings are increasingly spectacular, culminating in a straight charge down the Las Vegas strip and into a casino. Not for West the same old sight of military helicopters rising from inside the Grand Canyon to confront the leads; his black whirlybirds scare a planeload of Arizona tourists, in whose innocent Cessna the Jailbird’s tracking device has been secreted. Stale jokes get clever twists: A cop in a hurry drops his doughnut, but only in a movie this confident could it land on its edge and stick.

“What are we going to do?” best friends Bimbo (Donal O’Kelly) and Larry (Colm Meaney) ask each other after Bimbo loses his job. The next scene is obvious but rather sweet—they get drunk, of course, this being Ireland in the ’90s and un film de Stephen Frears, script by Roddy Doyle. Grown men on the dole loaf all day bitterly, get drunk, stumble home, wake up to tired wives and messy kitchens filled with runny eggs and runny-nosed kids, and start all over again. There is no future, it seems, in Ireland’s dreaming, either.

With The Commitments, Doyle became America’s favorite confirmer of the charm and sentimentality of the Irish working class, the very denial of menace or “troubles.” Doyle’s stories are those of the people, to him a milieu discrete from that of politics, or even social politics. It’s an emerald dreamworld, where too-young single mothers are the goodhearted leprechauns of a crumbling but still winsome social system.

The Van is the jokiest of the film versions of Doyle’s so-called “Barrytown Trilogy” (The Commitments and The Snapper were the others). Since Frears’ promise has dwindled away and now he is a competent, imaginative adapter of other people’s ideas, The Van tells its simple story in a manner that is at once stalwart and eccentric. With his severance pay, Bimbo buys the rusted hulk of a van, and conscripts Larry into helping him clean it up and stock it—he wants to hold his head up again, to be a man who works for himself selling fish and chips to the paying masses. Dark-haired, slightly rat-faced Bimbo is the dreamer, prone to quick, brightly burning enthusiasms; bulky Larry, who’s been out of work for years, bullies and complains. Working in the van begins to tear at their friendship and shakes up dormant resentments within their families.

If anything is to blame for the sad state of affairs among the European underclass, the script makes it quite clear where to point the finger. References to American pop culture pollute the script: John Wayne (a five-and-dime portrait of his head hovering deitylike over a Southwestern landscape hangs in Larry’s hall), Axl Rose, “Good night, John Boy,” Graceland, Pearl Harbor, Megadeth. Clearly, crass American imports have robbed Ireland of its pride; the last local version can be found in the country’s dedication to its football teams. The fortunes of Bimbo’s Burgers rises and falls with that of Ireland’s team.

Contrasting with this political pseudo-seriousness, The Van is in every other aspect cartoonish. Gatherings of people each have a distinct, exaggerated look, almost a uniform—high-haired bingo players, face-painted and silly-hatted football celebrants, leatherclad heavy-metal concertgoers. When Larry and Bimbo first steer the van (it has no engine) into town, they accrue children and curious onlookers until their procession is a veritable parade, a point Frears makes emphatic by dressing the knee-pumping children in bright solid colors and providing a cartwheeling little girl to lead the way.

The cartoonishness is cute and fun to look at—Frears’ outdoors scenes are luminous and stagy, as if everything associated with the van means an independence for the men that’s actually magical—but the effect is condescending and, finally, dismissive. A Christmas party at Bimbo’s is pathetic, with a fake white tree, the house stuffed with big-eyed, ruffled gewgaws, and all the guests in hideous celebratory costume—sleazy gold lamé and decaying teeth. Frears dehumanizes his characters for the comfort of the potentially huge overseas audience—the Irish are poor so we don’t have to be.CP