Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/01/05 00:59:47

"Yet another pale imitiation of a classic original."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

It’s hard to be fair to the new “Flight of the Phoenix,” an adaptation of the novel by Elleston Trevor, because I keep wanting desperately to compare it to Robert Aldrich’s 1965 film version, which got everything so right that I wonder why a remake was necessary. The fact that John Moore, the director of this new version, gets everything wrong in those same places makes me eager to simply make my review a list of direct comparisons.

I’ll try not to, however, since every time I confront a remake, I always tell myself to judge it on its own terms. (Such advice doesn’t always work, of course, especially when the new version is a pale imitation of a classic.) I will allow myself a one sentence contrast, and it is this: where the 1965 film takes its time letting the story unravel on its own, quietly but fiercely, the 2004 version opts to make everything louder, and louder, and louder, until it’s convinced that the only way to get dramatic impact from such a premise is to pound loudness into the viewer.

For a while (and here’s where I force myself to ignore the original movie… good luck), Moore’s “Phoenix” gets things right. It shakes up the story a bit, ditching the military characters and making everyone involved employees of an oil company. Flying out of a lousy Mongolian outpost, they get slammed by a nasty sandstorm and crash in the Gobi desert, presumably somewhere just inside the China border, although nobody’s too sure. The crash sequence is great stuff, nerveracking and fierce, one-upping such modern crash scenes as the one in “Cast Away.” So far, so good.

With survival a prime issue, a bizarre stranger and the film’s only non-oil company employee (Giovanni Ribisi) suggests they build a new plane out of the working parts remaining from the old one - a plot point that doesn’t appear until much later in the 1965 version (sorry, can‘t help myself), suggesting that this new version is eager to tighten things up, move things along much faster, and simply Get On With It.

It’s around here that things start to go south. Uncertain of how to keep things moving in a movie in which so little happens, screenwriters Scott Frank (who should’ve known better) and Edward Burns (who doesn’t, no surprise) keep tossing in increasingly annoying moments. It all starts with the casting of Sticky Fingaz (perhaps not his birth name?) as an eye-patched badass; his character exists merely to inject some hip-hop lingo into the proceedings. We even get a bit in which he takes over the stereo system and blares Outcast’s “Hey Ya!” Good song, bad scene.

Then come the occasional explosion or electrical storm, which make for some decent action sequences but feel too forced and out of place in what’s meant to be more of a character piece. And, in what evolves into an obnoxious turn of events, the arrival of a tribe of nomad baddies (arms smugglers, the story guesses), handled so expertly last time out (sorry again!), here becomes a cop out - whenever the plot gets stuck, just toss in some random nomads. (Their arrival during the final scene was so unnecessary that it borders on laughable.) By attempting to spruce things up for a modern audience, the film winds up being a series of wrong choices.

Worst of all, the filmmakers opted to dumb things down, instead of trusting the viewer to be remotely intelligent. There’s an overlong explanation of the meaning of “phoenix” dropped in for all the morons in the audience, and a major revelation regarding one character is drawn out past its breaking point (the clumsiness of the scripting is only intensified by Marco Beltrami’s ham-fisted musical score, which mistakes “loud” for “important”).

Moore, who also made the dumb-but-enjoyable Owen Wilson actioner “Behind Enemy Lines,” here tries to cram too much action into a film that doesn’t need it. Fortunately, the cast rescues many a scene. Dennis Quaid, in the Jimmy Stewart role, is as magnetic a screen personality as he’s ever been, and his energetic presence keeps the story plowing over its mistakes. Ribisi makes for a nice mystery man (even if the script fumbles the mystery); Miranda Otto is wonderful enough (and gorgeous enough) to make things worth watching; model-turned-actor Tyrese Gibson shows a growing promise as a star; and Hugh Laurie brings more out of his character’s breakdown than the script requires, thank goodness.

Still, the cast can’t fully save a dying production. This new “Phoenix” makes too many mistakes, the biggest one being the mistake of confusing “modernizing” with “dumbing down.” Moore’s version may interest those unfamiliar with the original movie, if only because they don’t know what they’re missing. But know this: you’re missing one hell of a whole lot.

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