Flight of the Phoenix

December, 2004, Thriller

Forty years ago, Robert Aldrich, (Vera Cruz, The Longest Yard, The Dirty Dozen) one of Hollywood's most bankable action-movie directors, assembled an international cast of highly recognizable faces, (Jimmy Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Kruger, Earnest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Dan Duryea, Ian Bannen) and put them in a film about the passengers and crew of a tired transport plane crash-landed in the desert. The movie then ingeniously unfolded an improbable but tensely interesting story about how they managed to re-engineer their battered craft and fly to safety. Relying on the skills of its durable cast, the movie delivered two plus hours of solid, if predictable male-bonding entertainment, Aldrich's stock in trade. Its title? The Flight of the Phoenix

Flash forward four decades; Irish-born director John Moore and the geniuses at 20th Century Fox have re-made Aldrich's film, dropping the article at the beginning of the title and peopling the cast with a collection of actors that don't stand comparison with those used in the original. Moore and company apparently felt they could compensate for that deficiency by juicing up the film with digitized special effects and loading the storyline with a subplot featuring masked & mounted desert bandits. Alas-- they've only succeeded in churning out a gigantic chunk of cinematic fromage.

An adventure film which anchors its action in a single location had better have memorable characters to provide the tension necessary to sustain audience interest; Aldrich cast him film very cleverly, with easily recognized pros reprising characters they'd played in countless earlier outings. In this version however, Moore chose to utilize actors with neither the accumulated screen time nor skill to infuse their roles with the credibility necessary to carry off their assignments. The results provide an array of performances often at unintentionally hilarious odds with the action.  

After a crisp opening that locates the action in Central Asia and introduces the motley collection of oil-rig crewmen being airlifted back to civilization, Moore delivers a computer-generated sandstorm blizzard which plops an aging two-engine flying relic smack in the middle of the Gobi Desert, two hundred miles from the nearest airport.  In this outing, Dennis Quaid and Giovanni Ribisi reprise the roles originally played by Steward and Kruger.  As the washed-up bush pilot and erstwhile aircraft designer who struggle to assume control over the disparate losers who make up the plane's other passengers, these two otherwise highly competent actors stomp through their lines as though struggling to match the way they lurch through the sand in which the downed plane is beached. Absurdities abound; heavy manual labor done in the daytime by men stripped to the waist and wearing nothing on their heads to protect them from the sun? A scheduled six hour flight that carries enough water to last a dozen people for a month? A sandstorm which rolls the fuselage over but doesn’t disturb an adjoining gerry-rigged repair facility? Nine people push their Rube Goldberg creation out of endless dunes onto a rock-strewn but perfectly level air strip which just happens to be conveniently located nearby? Enough already…

As he proved in his first outing, (Behind Enemy Lines) Moore can fill the screen with some exciting action scenes, and he employs his Namibian locations to lend good visual credibility to the proceedings, but a lumpish, simplistic script delivered by a squad of largely unknown thespians makes for a particularly disappointing reminder that they just don't make old-style Hollywood action movie like they used to. Moore should have left well enough alone; rent the original.  



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