Flight of the Phoenix, a moth-eaten stranded-in-the-desert yarn that throws in every cheap trick in the manual to pump up your heartbeat, is so manipulative that the involuntary jolts of adrenaline it produces make you feel like a fool. Watching it is the equivalent of being strapped on a treadmill and forced to trot, or of having the soles of your feet tickled; you may laugh, but it's not funny.
The film is a rickety update of the far superior 1965 movie, directed by Robert Aldrich, with James Stewart and Richard Attenborough leading an all-star cast. The setting has been moved from the Sahara to the Gobi Desert. And the revamped characters make up a cunningly chosen and unlikely mosaic of types that include a pretty woman (Miranda Otto), a one-eyed African-American guitarist (Kirk Jones), a Mexican-American chef (Jacob Vargas) and a Saudi (Kevork Malikyan). Otto's character, Kelly, belongs to the new breed of action-heroine: beautiful and unsmiling, she runs a Mongolian oil rig that is shut down in the movie's opening scene.
Shepherding the brigade of newly unemployed oil workers back to civilization is Capt. Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid), a hard-bitten cynic who couldn't care less about his human cargo. Rather than turn back the aircraft when it heads into a sandstorm, he tries to fly over and around it.
As the plane breaks apart in the air (its tail falls off, and it loses a propeller and its communications equipment), it roars to earth in one of the longest, most overproduced crash landings ever filmed. (For how to do it right, see Cast Away.)
Quaid, who growls through the movie like an attack dog preparing to spring, maintains an expression of such unalloyed gloom that his clenched mouth resembles an inverted smile button. The movie takes what little pleasure it can from admiring this 50-year-old star's sculptured abdominals when he takes off his shirt.
Directed by: John Moore
Starring: Dennis Quaid (Frank Towns), Tyrese Gibson (A.J.), Giovanni Ribisi (Elliott), Miranda Otto (Kelly),
Tony Curran (Rodney), Kirk Jones (Jeremy),
Jacob Vargas (Sammi) and Kevork Malikyan (Rady).
Running time: 115 minutes
Taiwan Release: today
After the plane crashes, the stranger among the survivors, a creepy martinet with a high, piping voice and the suspiciously nerdy name of Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), announces that he's an aircraft designer who has figured out a way to construct a getaway plane from the remains. (Hardy Kruger played the same role in the original.) The power struggle that continues for the rest of the movie pits brains (Elliott) against brawn (Frank).
The officious little aeronautics nut whose hair is dyed blond insists on being the unchallenged boss, entitled to an extra share of water, which is in perilously short supply. After a rebellion, in which he nearly loses his life, his nastiest ploy is to force the survivors to grovel and plead with him to return to work.
Meanwhile, every obstacle, save an epidemic, that could foil the chances of rescue or escape conspires against them. Mountains of magnetic rock make navigation on foot with a compass impossible. Because it's July, the survivors have to work at night. When a fuel explosion destroys their source of firelight, they have to carry on in the blazing sun.
Strangely, we don't see much sweat, and these industrious worker bees also seem blithely unconcerned with sunstroke. Recurrent sandstorms and one anticlimactic electrical disturbance that releases a few raindrops along with lots of phony lightning arrive on schedule and always at the most inopportune moments. The one lost-in-the-desert cliche the movie avoids is a mirage of a mocha cappuccino on the horizon.