Title: Flight of the Phoenix
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Director: John Moore
Screenwriters: Lukas Heller, Scott Frank
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Miranda Otto, Giovanni Ribisi
Flight of the Phoenix, John Moore’s remake of the 1965 Jimmy Stewart adventure (that one had a definite article attached), is inadequate in a lot of ways — clumsy, unwieldy, thoughtless, with characterizations rivaling those of Anacondas for pure ludicrousness. The difference between it and the scores of infinitely more craptacular action flicks that emerge from the Hollywood pipeline is that frequently you can feel it trying — to develop an aesthetic, to make us laugh, to do something bizarre. It is not a very good film, but at least there is something going on here, most of the time. Sometimes that’s all you can ask.
The plot concerns a ragtag bunch of travelers whose plane crash-lands in the middle of a Mongolian desert after the rugged individualist pilot decides to fly it into a sandstorm. The aircraft, which aside from its passengers is carrying the leftovers of a capped oil well, lands just so, with the wings and one of the engines undamaged and, apparently, plenty of power tools on board. Still, death seems certain and hope wanes as they realize that no one is likely to mount an extensive search. The requisite company man among them (Hugh Laurie) is undaunted, however — patiently rearranging his schedule on his trusty PDA, he insists that “they have a corporate responsibility for all of us.” There is a hilarious (or laughable, depending on your point of view) scene where Kelly (Miranda Otto), whose oil well was the reason for the trip, condescendingly uses cost-benefit analysis to demonstrate why the profit-minded won’t be too keen on a rescue attempt.
The film has all the trappings of a typical, cheesy adventure flick, with Dennis Quaid playing Harrison Ford, a constant stream of manufactured villains, and at least one scene where a restless character decides to attempt the trek across the desert to the nearest outpost (this one, at least, features an amusing exchange: “I’m an athlete. I ran three marathons.” “In a row, I hope!”). But there are times when it, intriguingly, shows hints of something else: a horror movie, perhaps, or at least something considerably more lurid than the rest of Flight of the Phoenix. It begins with a gratuitously graphic shot of a man falling out of an airplane and hitting the ground with a sickening noise; later, there’s a startling shot of a corpse eviscerated by a sandstorm and a scene where someone’s narration is interrupted with horrific quick cuts of What May Happen; the trend culminates in a climactic stand-up where Moore cuts the background noise to a tuneless hum and cranks up the bass on the screaming main characters’ voices, with the result being almost… I don’t know… gothic.
I also grooved on Giovanni Ribisi’s completely freakin’ deranged performance; I’m growing fond of the actor, who can play quiet and subdued with the best of them and then turn in something as unspeakably, hilariously bizarre as this. He plays the megalomaniacal airplane designer who insists that he can construct a new, functioning airplane out of the remnants of the old one; any self-respecting actor would kill for some of the scenes Ribisi gets toward the end of the film. I won’t give anything away, but I will say this: “Who’s the boss of everyone?”
If the movie had gone all out in this direction, I suspect I would have liked it quite a bit; as is, it’s not quite unhinged enough to overcome the parts that are absurd but tedious, and there are plenty of those. There’s not much more headway to be made with big inspirational speeches in movies like this, but Moore and his screenwriters (one of whom is none other than Ed Burns) don’t seem to realize that; there’s also a prominent subplot that goes absolutely nowhere, and is dealt with (or, more accurately, not dealt with) in one of the most abrupt endings in recent memory. The score by Marco Beltrami is way off the mark, sappy when it needs to be rousing; musically, the movie doesn’t live down the fairly brilliant use of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” in the opening credits.
I think I may have actually made Flight of the Phoenix sound better than it is; I seriously doubt that it’s worth your money at Christmastime. A lot of people who see as many movies as I do get grouchy and impatient; I usually at least make a token effort to find something to like. Flight of the Phoenix idly intrigued me with some unexpected flourishes, but for the most part it is a waste of time.