THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX"

Flight of the Phoenix is a remake of a 1965 Jimmy Stewart film that has been written by Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Out of Sight) and Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen). Dennis Quaid takes over as the lead, playing cargo pilot Frank Towns. When an oil exploration in Mongolia is shut down, Frank is sent in to fly the group home. He and his co-pilot AJ (Tyrese Gibson) don’t show a lot of respect to their passengers; they’re just a couple guys doing a job and waiting to get paid.

As it crosses the Gobi desert, the plane gets caught in a brutal sand storm. Frank tries to fly above it but the plane carries too much weight. The radio antenna is ripped off and an engine is blown, sending the propeller into the side of the plane. One unlucky passenger gets blown out the back. Frank navigates a crash landing that leaves most of the people alive. However, they are stranded in the middle of the desert with no way to call for help. One of those on board – the enigmatic Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi) – hatches a plan to build a new, smaller airplane out of the wreckage of the larger one. Frank initially rejects that plan, feeling it is better to wait for rescue rather than dabble in false hope. The others fear running out of food and water, so they pressure Frank to lead them in the project.

What makes Flight of the Phoenix such an unusual film is that it has too much of some things and not enough of others, and these things tend to cancel each other out. For instance, one of the really strong points is the pacing. There are some really effective action scenes, starting with the plane crash, which made me physically sick to my stomach with its intensity. (Yes, this is a compliment.) Several of the other scenes also provide real thrills, particularly one in which the group fights over how to deal with a desert smuggler who has threatened them. Elliott’s solution is both surprising and gripping.

On the other hand, there’s really too much of this action. It would have been interesting to see a lot more about how they design and build the new plane. That doesn’t happen though. Instead, the group faces an electrical storm, a sand storm, a vicious attack by those smugglers, and more. Somehow the film feels like it should be a survival story rather than a straight-ahead action movie. The idea of rebuilding the plane is a good one, so why don’t we have more of a clue about how they do it? Flight of the Phoenix would have been stronger had this central idea been given more attention. By the time Frank tries to take off in the new plane with everyone else hanging onto the wings and an army of gun-wielding smugglers chasing them, I couldn’t escape the feeling that no one trusted the basic material. There’s too much sprucing it up with unnecessary action elements.

Here’s another example: the movie has a very good cast, which also includes fine British actors Hugh Laurie and Miranda Otto, in addition to Quaid, Gibson, and Ribisi. We never really learn much about the characters, though. They’re are all thrown into the cargo plane within the first five minutes. It’s not clear who all of them are, what they do, or even what their names are. Aside from Elliott, none of them have much personality either. They are as generic as they could possibly be.

The whole movie is like that. Everything that’s good has a downside, and everything that doesn’t work has something that keeps it from failing completely. There’s a really good movie in here somewhere if the material could just be modulated. Director John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines) keeps things visually interesting, and the screenplay by Frank and Burns has some sharp lines of dialogue (and a clever plot twist near the end), but none of it ever solidifies.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my opinion of Flight of the Phoenix is split right down the middle. There’s some good stuff here – particularly the interesting performance from Giovanni Ribisi – but a lot is missing too. To put it in flight terminology, the film is a reasonably pleasant cruise at low altitude, but what we really want to do is soar.

( 1/2 out of four)


Flight of the Phoenix is rated PG-13 for some language, action, and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.

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