THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, 2004’s version of the 1965 film, which was, in turn based on the novel starts with a bang. It ends with another, even better one, but, alas, sags in the middle with too much exposition and not enough suspense. Though people doing very silly things qualifies as a sort of suspense, as in, what silly thing will they do next?
It’s only ten minutes into the proceedings before Captain Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid) has flown his cargo plane carrying an unwilling bunch of soon to be ex-oil drillers out of Mongolia and into a sandstorm of biblical proportions. As the co-pilot (a toothsome Tyrese) puts it to the passengers, if you believe in God, this is a good time to call in a favor. That’s just before he’s slammed to the ceiling by the turbulence. No doubt about it, the screen time devoted to the plane going down and then sliding for what seems like miles is well spent in getting the adrenaline going. There are bits of plane flying in every direction, including into the stratosphere, as it bobs and weaves like a cork in a spin cycle.
Once on the ground in the Gobi Desert, it’s time to take stock of the situation, ration the water, and explain at length why it’s not possible to walk out of the desert. Too hot during the day and magnetic mountains make the compass needle spin like the plane did back in the sandstorm. Apparently, and for reasons that are never explained, the North Star doesn’t operate in this locale. Never mind, it’s time for character clashes between the rag-tag team of oil-drillers, their number-crunching and suitably supercilious corporate liaison (Hugh Laurie), and a tag-along (Givoanni Ribisi with hair bleached blond, perhaps to evoke Hardy Kruger,who played the part in the original). No one knows much about him, except that they don’t like his superior attitude and smug self-satisfaction. He’s like a walking smirk and you just want to smack him on principle.
It’s also time for the major plot point, which is that Ribisi’s character designs airplanes, and that he has a scheme to salvage the bits of the plane that didn’t fall off or otherwise become unusable, build a new plane, and fly them all out of there. Since they really have nothing else to do except wait to die there in the broiling sun, what with the radio going out before they could send a distress signal, it seems like a really good idea to everyone except Town’s. He’s just not into that hope and dream stuff as he calls it, which means we in the audience are in for several speeches on the virtues of same. And a whole lot of dialogue devoted to explaining over and over why it’s their only hope and exactly what will happen if they leave on foot. Some bold editing would have done much to make up for the other sin to be found here. That would be the boneheaded stunts our group pulls. Granted, theyre operating under stress and so might be forgiven for being a scooch muddle-headed, but performing spot-welding, with the attendant sparks, with the extra fuel barrels right nearby? Can we all see what’s happening next? And why are they all milling about in the sun when they aren’t working on the plane? Can they really not know about sunstroke? Shouldn’t the alarming shades of red that Laurie turns alert them that something is amiss?
Then we come to the last 45 minutes, where things pick up considerably as the action starts galloping along and the psychological tension build up some heady steam. It’s arguably worth it to wade through the sludgy middle to get here. Quaid is good, in that cocky but not too bright way that has an enduring and endearing charm. Laurie is always eminently watchable with the barely veiled English public school distaste for anything that keeps him from a round of golf and a clean shirt. Miranda Otto as the spunky woman of the piece is believably gritty. But it’s Ribisi who steals the show with his subtle eccentricity that bespeaks a lifetime of being the brainy kid who was always getting beaten up by the jocks.
I think I know why the people behind THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX thought that a re-make would be a good idea. Part of it is that it’s an interesting story in that heroically improbable way that can sweep an audience along with it, particularly when CGI is capable putting a plane in the middle of the mother of all sandstorms and make it look more than good, make it terrifically terrifying. But I think the real reason is that international television franchise, Survivor. Think about it. A bunch of people left stranded in difficult circumstances forced to perform certain tasks in order to earn rewards. On television, it’s snack food and/or a million bucks to go with the inevitable 15 minutes of fame. On the big screen, it’s life and/or death, plus, the not far-fetched idea that someone in the group, perhaps all, just might be thinking of the movie rights as he or she spot welds that wing in place.