A film review by Craig J. Koban

FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX jjj

2004, PG-13, 112 mins.

Capt. Frank Towns: Dennis Quaid / Elliot: Giovanni Ribisi / Kelly: Mirando Otto / A.L.: Tyrese Gibson / Rodney: Tony Curran / Jeremy: Kirk Jones / Sammi: Jacob Vargas / Kyle: Bob Brown / Doctor: Paul Ditchfield / Newman: Martin Hindy

Directed by John Moore /
Written by Lukas Heller, Scott Frank and Edward Burns

"Flight of the Phoenix (double-sided)" Movie PosterA great number of critics have been openly critical of the new remake of the 1965 adventure classic FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX.  I approach remakes a bit differently than with simple-minded, direct and obvious comparisons to the original.  For me, if I have seen the original, a small portion of the remake’s success lies with how much freshness and life it imparts into a story that’s already been told once before.  Realistically, if the remake has nothing new to offer viewers, then what ultimately would be the point of seeing it?  A few recent remakes of classic films that I have been exposed to were sensational, like  Jonathan Demme's version of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, which did and exemplary job with updating the original film as well as making the proceedings surprisingly tense.  Also, there was also last year’s THE ALAMO, which made the legendary siege work by infusing it with a palatable and sensitive human story. 

Now comes the new FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, a rather problematic film for me to dissect, having never seen the original, which starred a great who’s-who of Hollywood talent (from Jimmy Stewart to Ernest Borgnine to George Kennedy to Peter Finch).  Some modest research into the original allowed me to make some eerie findings: the original film used a real plane instead of a preponderance of computer special effects and was flown by an actual pilot – Paul Mantz – who subsequently crashed and was killed.  Maybe if the makers of the ’65 classic had all of the CGI trickery that modern filmmakers have at their disposable, then maybe a life of one man would have been saved?  Perhaps that is kind of why the new film does not emotionally resonate in the ways that I  expected it to -  the effects detailing the plane and its amazing crash are handled with such a high level of special effects that I was more absorbed by the technique and not the human suffering. 

Needless to say, discussing this film version will be a focus on it alone and not the original, which is kind of liberating in one sense, seeing that critiquing it with the other looming in the background could impede my objectivity.   

The new film does have a wonderful group of actors assembled.  The always dependable and likeable Dennis Quaid stars in the lead role of Frank Towns, a gritty, arrogant, and gutsy pilot who has been hired by a rather large oil company to bring their employees home after a long operation in Mongolia has failed.  The “human cargo” along for the ride are a somewhat eclectic group of misfits and colorful strangers:  We have the chef of the drill site, a rich and snobby executive, a group of grunt labor, and the mysterious and enigmatic presence of one insecure passenger named Elliot, played broadly, yet vaguely by one of the finest young actors of his generation, Giovanni Ribisi.  Ribisi’s meager, yet fiercely defensive and proud character is one of the highlights of the film, and his odd and peculiar quirkiness is an effective foil to the other characters. 

Frank and his party end up going on their “three hour tour…a three hour tour”…er…I mean…plane trip back home to civilization when disaster strikes.  Frank’s plane suddenly runs into a gigantic sandstorm that causes the plane’s valuable radio antenna (never good to lose) and one of the propellers (definitely never good to lose in flight) to become ripped off.  In a scene of convincing and breathtaking special effects and cinematography, Frank crash lands the giant cargo plane in the middle of the Gobi Desert (never, ever a good place to land).  Even worse, the crash landing took the lives of two of the crew, not to mention that several vital rations and food were whisked out of the plane upon landing.  When the survivors take stock and realize their situation, painful dilemmas begin to spiral around them: the amount of food and H2O they have is sparse at best (about a month’s worth), and the chances of any other plane spotting them overhead are slim to none and slim just left town.  To make matters even more dire, native pirates of the desert are on the fringes and could pose a threat at any moment.  

Where’s Frank T. Hopkins and his trusty horse Hidalgo when you need them? 

Things then start to take a turn for the better, or maybe the ridiculous and implausible.  Elliot, who manages to makes himself as inconspicuous, unassuming, and socially inept as possible, finally stands his ground and confronts the group with a bold idea:  He explains that he is an engineer that designs planes (very convenient to have one when you stranded without a plane that works) and he believes, with a great deal of personal certainty, that they could actually make a new plane out of the remaining parts.  Everyone, of course, thinks him to be a nut, but he rather proudly retorts to Frank, “The design is flawless, the only fault is that you are going to have to be the one that pilots it.”  Nothing like instilling the utmost confidence.  Frank, of course, thinks the idea to be inane, and when confronted by the idea of hope, he dryly responds to one survivor, “You are assuming I'm one of those people who has hope.” 

The rest of what happens in FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX will not be a surprise to anyone that is familiar with the principles of “stranded characters facing death, but need to survive” screenplay writing 101.  Considering the talent that wrote the film (it was co-written by Scott Frank – MINORITY REPORT and GET SHORTY – and Edward Burns – THE BROTHERS McMULLEN – some of the dialogue feels forced, hammy, and artificial.  Most of the characters are stock stereotypes that speak with the necessary level of dimensionality that the screenplay demands them to.  Some individual characters are interesting and well drawn out (Frank and Elliot for sure) but the others are largely dull cardboard cutouts that serve the need to provide the film with dramatic tension and conflict. 

Some of the dialogue is laughable, such as when one character pleads with Frank when he wants to give up, “I find it hard to believe that a man who learns to fly never had a dream.”  I also found Frank’s willingness to eventually succumb to the plan and go ahead with it was paced rather too quickly and conveniently, and I was especially a bit disheartened by the way the script makes Elliot out to be such a social misfit and potential villain when, in all fairness, he’s the key to everyone’s survival.  Sure…he’s a twerp, but he never makes a bad judgment, and at one point in the film where he commits a seemingly foul and vile act, upon close scrutiny he was right in his actions, even while the script pains to make him into an antagonist.  Basically, the characters, more or less, behave the way the story wants them to and not how they actually would. 

Yet, I don’t think that these criticisms really do the film in on any serious level.  Okay, the film is (I have read) a fairly scene for scene re-imagining of the original 1965 film, but to the lay viewer it works overall on its intended levels.  Sure, the film is not a rousing and nail-biting suspense thriller about human survival the way TOUCHING THE VOID is (that film is one of the greatest films about human will, strength, and perseverance), but it’s not supposed to be.  I saw FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX as kind of a simple-minded throwback picture to those types of entertainments from Hollywood’s past, the ones with plainly idealized characters and stories that are noble, wooden at their core, yet entertaining and modestly endearing and gripping. 

PHOENIX sort of plays like another tall tale piece of fiction – last year’s HIDALGO.  You may remember that in that film its hero out-rode a sandstorm on his horse and engaged in events that were beyond realism.  Yet, HIDALGO and PHOENIX are in the tradition of simple and broad epic films, those types of action-packed, all-star vehicles that thrill despite their implausibility because they are done with polish and a slight tongue in cheek vibe.  I wrote that HIDALGO’S “characters are broad and likeable, its scenery expansive and beautiful, and its action is well realized.”    FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX is a film not to be taken too literally and realistically, but my comments about HIDALGO bare credence for it as well. 

I am giving FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX a passable recommendation, emphasizing that I have not seen the original.  It was a generally enjoyable romp into those types of simple and innocuous genres that Hollywood kind of gave up on years ago.  It sort of works like a cross between an inverse ALIVE and SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, and it had breathtaking scenery, cinematography, fantastic and wonderful visual effects work (the opening crash is stellar and kinetic) and the final moments work on their levels of orchestrated suspense.  Sure the characters are flat and stilted and the dialogue is manipulative, but so what?  The film does not have grand ambitions.  FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX is old-fashioned storytelling about stock characters that have pluck, might, and pull together to overcome the odds, and on those levels the film is a pleasant escapist ride.  Nothing more, nothing less.  The film is about traditional heroes and survival, and is not grandstanding to be something it's not.  The final product is wonderfully old-school in nearly every detail, and is adequately serviceable as an action/suspense thriller.  It may not soar to the heights of other great disaster films, but it manages to take off successfully and not crash and burn.

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