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Flight of the Phoenix (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 17 December 2004
A lot of remakes get released these days, usually of films that were big hits the first time around—why remake a flop? But the 1965 “The Flight of the Phoenix” wasn’t a major hit, even though it starred James Stewart. It was somewhat too long (much longer than this remake), but was founded on a solid premise that is trickier to work out than at first appears. That movie was written by Lukas Heller from the novel by Elleston Trevor; this is written by Scott Frank and Edward Burns (the actor-director). The director is John Moore, really known only for “Behind Enemy Lines,” with Owen Wilson and Gene Hackman.

Everyone has done their work just fine—“Flight of the Phoenix” is a strong, well-made tale of peril and survival. It’s hard to describe it as “action-adventure,” since there’s really very little action, which is the tricky part. A big cargo plane, the once widely-used C-119, goes down in a vast desert. Most of the passengers survive, but the plane is smashed. All nearby outposts are beyond walking distance, their radio is out, and they were far off course when they crashed. What can they do?

Randy Quaid plays Frank Towns, the pilot and an oil company employee whose job is mostly to shut down unprofitable exploration sites. He’s cocky, abrasive and cares little about the people whose jobs his arrival ends. Kelly (Miranda Otto) is the head of this particular operation, located way out in the Gobi desert. She’s annoyed that Towns is so uncaring that she and her crew have just lost their jobs. Both of them are irritated when Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), a nerdish type who wandered in out of the desert, has to be taken aboard the plane for the flight to Beijing. He says he’s a student on an around-the-world jaunt. The others are all tough oil workers, plus Ian (Hugh Laurie), an executive who considers himself superior to these mere grease monkeys. The plane is also loaded with a lot of equipment.

The plane encounters a massive sandstorm; these scenes of roiling brown, ochre and tan are superbly realized. Moore elects to show the plane at a great distance, a puny toy trying to battle the overwhelming odds of the fierce storm. The excellent aerial photography is by David B. Nowell, the rest of the cinematography by Brendan Galvin. The visual effects supervisor, very resourceful, was David Goldberg.
Towns and his long-time co-pilot A.J. (Tyrese Gibson) try to wisecrack the nervous passengers into ignoring the danger, but things go wrong when an engine fails, then its propeller rips into the side of the plane. Down the big cargo craft plummets, with Towns struggling to make the safest possible landing. One person is sucked out of the plane, and though the landing is rough, all but two survive.

Now what? They’re lost in the stretches of the vast Gobi desert, no radio, no way to get out. There are some clashes between Towns and Kelly, and between Ian and everyone else, over who is in charge. But they realize that it doesn’t matter who’s in charge. What matters is trying to find a means of rescuing themselves.

That’s when Elliott speaks up. A slight, blond guy in glasses, he has a somewhat prissy, haughty demeanor that rubs everyone the wrong way. He’s seen in the background of several shots, poking around the downed plane, taking notes. He announces that he’s an aircraft designer, and believes that the undamaged wings and still-functioning motor can be cobbled together into an aircraft that could take them to safety.

Towns doesn’t buy it, doesn’t even want to entertain the idea—he feels that it would represent false hope, that they’d just expend their meager supply of water and food (amusingly, mostly canned peaches and hearts of palm) on a fruitless effort. He questions the design. Elliott smugly replies, “The design is fine—the only flaw,” he tells Towns, “is that we have to rely on you to fly it.”

After a friend of his disappears in a lightning-filled night, Liddle (Scott Michael Campbell) heads off into the desert; the others implore Towns to follow him. They do meet up, and find evidence that they are not alone in the desert—but whoever else is out there has looted the body of the man who fell from the plane, and used the corpse for target practice. Liddle tells Towns that what everyone needs is something to love. “If you can’t give them that, give them something to hope for. If you can’t do that, give them something to do.”

Towns is convinced, and work commences on creating an airplane out of the wreckage. Someone dubs it the Phoenix, for the mythological bird that rose from its own ashes. They all become involved in the construction, working together on a goal they all understand. Just as Robert Aldrich did in the original, John Moore here firmly grips our intention and imaginations with this seemingly impossible task. We’re glued to the screen, even though almost all the movie takes place in the same few hundred square feet of salmon-colored sand. (The movie was shot in Nambia.)

But it’s a thrill ride despite this limited venue. And the script deftly avoids clichés and stereotypes. Yes, Kelly is a woman, but she’s worked with these guys long enough that they accept her as one of them, even as their boss. There’s nothing at all about sex in the entire movie, there’s no romance developed between Kelly and anyone else, including Towns. The movie stays focused on the cast and their seemingly-impossible goal.

The various complications you might expect don’t turn up. Nobody punches anyone else for Kelly’s attention, there are few squabbles between the characters, most of whom have worked together for years. Instead, we get very well-focused dialog that brings each character to specific life without the usual clumsy device of giving them heavily-underlined traits. This represents some of the best ensemble writing and acting of the year.

The cast is fine. Quaid, who can be a bit much sometimes, is effective and very unlike Jimmy Stewart in the original. Making him the guy who shuts down the oil drilling locations is probably a little more baggage than the story actually needed, as his job is hardly relevant to the situation. The one character touch that does work well is the always fine Hugh Laurie’s gradual change from lofty executive to one of the team.

Although this movie is co-produced by William Aldrich, son of the director of the original film, Moore avoided watching the first one. He was surprised when he later saw how much Giovanni Ribisi looks like Hardy Kruger, who had the role in the first version. What’s more, Ribisi, who’s excellent, makes many of the same choices as an actor that Kruger (also excellent) had made the first time around. This suggests that the character in the original novel was so well-created that there really is basically one way to play this somewhat mysterious loner.

Technically, the film is outstanding. That huge initial sandstorm is awesome and frightening, and the crash sequence is exciting, scary and realistic. (One small flaw: this is the Gobi desert, so the camel we see should be a two-humped Bactrian, not the one-hump dromedary seen here.) The editing gets a shade tricky at times, as in a badly-motivated fight over water that bursts one of their few containers. But Moore had to do something to keep our interest focused on this imaginatively limited story.

The title music, amusingly, is Johnny Cash’s exuberant rendition of “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Though it’s hard to see how the idea of that song applies to this story, it’s a great, lively, not-too-serious opening for the movie. On the other hand, though the score by Marco Beltrami is excellent overall, the choice of music is not consistently good. The harsh, jangling score used for a scene of someone dying is intrusive and ugly.

“Flight of the Phoenix” hasn’t received much promotion, nor has the cast and filmmakers been interviewed for the many year-end movie business articles appearing all over the place. But that makes it a doubly satisfying discovery—it’s a very good movie, lots of fun, exciting, well-acted and handsomely produced. You can discover it yourself.

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