Flight of the Phoenix
To classify Flight of the Phoenix, John Moore’s remake of the tight 1965 psychological drama of the same name, as an action-adventure flick is to be slightly misleading. A more accurate description would be... a whole lot of sand bookended by about twenty-five total minutes of entertaining but ultimately unremarkable action. By the end of the film you will be intensely interested in seeing that plane finally get off the ground, not so much because you care about the fates of the characters, but because you just want to hurry up and get it over with.
Cargo plane pilot Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid) and co-pilot A.J. (Tyrese Gibson) are chartered to fly the crew and equipment out of an oil drilling site in the middle of the Gobi Desert that has failed to produce and is being shut down. The crew, headed up by female rig boss Kelly (Miranda Otto) is, needless to say, more than just a little disappointed, so antagonism quickly heats up between the pilots, the "zeroes" they are escorting, and the on-site corporate representative Ian (Hugh Laurie). A simple flight home turns to disaster when pilot error sends the C-119 cargo plane into the heart of a massive sandstorm which rips off the plane’s radio antenna and chokes the port side engine to the point of disintegration, leaving Towns no choice but to crash land three hundred miles short of civilization. With very little food, water or realistic expectation of being found in a timely fashion, the survivors eventually agree to embark on an ambitious undertaking suggested by Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), a mysterious last minute addition to the ill-fated passengers list. The plan? To build a new plane out of the salvageable parts of the wrecked C-119. The survivors must battle the elements, dwindling supplies, blood-thirsty nomad bandits, private grudges and their own sense of hopelessness if they ever want to escape an ignoble death at the hands of an unforgiving desert.
I have to admit that watching the title sequence, which features shots of the C-119 flying across a series of gorgeous desert-scapes to the strains of Johnny Cash’s "I’ve Been Everywhere", got me properly jazzed up to watch what I thought was going to be an engaging adventure with a dose of humor added for charm. However, in retrospect, as the sequence plodded on through the full 3+ minutes of the song I should have recognized it for the warning it was - a portent of pacing problems to come. Sure the first fifteen minutes or so move along nicely, but no sooner does the plane hit the dirt but the flow of the film slows from a canter to a crawl, due in large part to the inexplicable apathy of most of the survivors and the almost total lack of effort made on the part of the filmmakers to adequately demark the passage of time. They may have been stranded for three days, or it might have been three weeks, there is just no way to tell, and this can only have the effect of making the film drag just when it should be getting more interesting. In the original film, while the crash and take-off are certainly exciting, the real appeal is in the drama created by the desperation, isolation and confrontation borne out of a group of men being forced to work together to save their own lives. This element is sadly lacking here - these men seem perfectly content to just sit back and either wait to be rescued or wait for the water to run out, an unsatisfying and somewhat mystifying reaction to extraordinary circumstance. Also difficult to accept are the extremely poor survival procedures followed by virtually all the characters, men who have supposedly been working in extreme desert conditions for quite a while and should know better. Sunburn, heat exhaustion, dehydration, malnutrition... the least of what the Gobi desert would subject such men to... and yet these guys are walking around with their shirts off in the middle of the day almost without a care in the world. Doesn’t exactly contribute to the overall sense of impending doom that might have maintained a modicum of interest between flights. For all this I have to fault the writers more so than the actors, who within the confines of their mostly poorly developed and uninspiring characters did a fairly adequate job of portraying an unmotivated group of losers whose loss probably wouldn’t have justified the cost of a rescue operation after all. With virtually no character development and very little action designed specifically to allow the characters to distinguish themselves from the background noise, it would be unfair to expect anything more from the actors. The notable exception to this is Elliott, the strange little man who seems to have more life bottled up inside his twisted psyche than the entire rest of the group combined. Ribisi stands out in this cast as the only member able to convince the viewer that his character is something more than just a cardboard cut-out that could have been played by anybody. He is not very likable, but you crave his presence in every scene just to keep things interesting. It should also be no surprise that the majority of the scenes that actually contain elements of tension and humor feature Elliott prominently. Unfortunately, these few moments of flavor are not enough to sustain the lumbering pace of a film which just never quite manages to get off the ground again once the action stops.
Who would enjoy this film? Well, the PG-13 rating might suggest that it would be good for kids, but honestly I think a child would need to have a superior attention span to even sit through the film successfully. There are also a few scenes showing the aftermath of violence that may not sit well with very young or sensitive viewers. Action-adventure fans will appreciate individual scenes, for example the crash, the rebirth of the Phoenix, and the encounter with the nomads, but overall I expect them to be just as frustrated as I was waiting for something of significance to happen during the bulk of the film. I expect fans of the individual actors to have some appreciation since the very nature of the story suggests that all the actors, even the relative unknowns, will be sharing a lot of screentime together, always a good thing from the perspective of a die-hard fan. Ultimately however I expect that the audience members who will get the most out of this film will be the fans of the C-119 cargo plane (come on, there’s just GOT to be a few of you out there...), a beautiful and remarkable aircraft that becomes both shelter and savior in the survivors’ hour of need. It’s just a shame the rest of the film could not live up to the plane’s level of distinctiveness.