Flight of the Phoenix (2004) Movie Review

The most dangerous enemy facing Dennis Quaid and crew isn’t surviving the harsh Gobi desert, or even the murderous indigenous raiders knocking at their doors, but rather the film’s ad campaign. If you’ve seen even one ad for the movie, you’ve basically seen everything there is to see about “Flight of the Phoenix”. The film’s climactic sequence, where the newly rebuilt Phoenix flees an army of horse-mounted raiders, is one of the trailer’s prime shots. Once you’ve seen that particular ending, there are only about 2 more minutes of screentime left in the actual movie. Which brings forth this observation: Hollywood trailers are basically undermining the need to see a movie.

“Flight of the Phoenix” is a remake of a 1965 movie of the same name, starring Jimmy Stewart and an all-star cast that includes Richard Attenborough and Ernest Borgnine. The remake doesn’t have nearly the gravitas of the original, but then again, what remake nowadays does? I’ve never heard of, much less seen, the original, so there is no preconceived judgment on my part going into the remake. Which is a good thing, because John Moore’s movie is so lacking in ambition or a need to be overly original that if you had seen the original, you would probably spend all your time talking about how pointless and unoriginal this remake is.

The always affable Dennis Quaid is Frank Towns, a hotshot (re: arrogant) pilot who flies into a desolate location somewhere in the Mongolian desert to pick up the crew of a recently decommissioned oil well. On their way back to civilization, Frank and co-pilot A.J. (model Tyrese, showing signs of improvement as an actor after “2 Fast 2 Furious”) runs into a massive sandstorm, and ends up crashing into the floor of the Gobi desert. Two dies during the crash, but the rest survive. It’s here that eccentric plane designer Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), the plane’s unscheduled passenger, comes up with the idea to build a new plane out of the remains of Frank’s wrecked one. Meanwhile, murderous raiders are slowly but surely making their way toward the survivors…

That last part is a bit of a cheat, as the raiders never really does anything, or indeed ever shows up for any amount of screentime, until almost the very end. Their presence seems perfunctory, much like Frank’s inexplicable romance with Miranda Otto’s Kelly, the only woman in the crew. There’s little point in arguing that Kelly isn’t the token female, as most of the cast are little more than token stereotypes themselves. Frank, the arrogant All-American pilot; A.J., the loyal, black friend/underling; Kelly, the fiery redhead; Elliott, the reclusive, oddball genius. The film even throws in a Mexican with dreams of opening his own restaurant, an Atheist Arab (!), and the stuffy company man who believes he’s better than the rest.

The script by indie writer/director Edward Burns and the usually reliable Scott Frank (“Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty”) never really gives the impression that the survivors are destined for anything except a happy ending. Even that cliff that Elliott discovers, that puts a crimp in the newly rebuilt plane’s take-off, seems little more than a minor obstacle to the expected “and they all lived happily ever after” ending. To offset the lack of any question regarding the ending, Moore and company offers up a visually impressive film. The desert location is splendid, and the film has a nice pace that keeps you entertained to the very predictable end.

Dennis Quaid is such a likeable guy that even when you know his character is mostly responsible for the crash, you can’t help but like the guy anyway. Miranda Otto, recently removed from Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, does what she can with the limited role, and one can’t help but wish she were in a better movie. The other notable performance is by Giovanni Ribisi (“Heaven”). I couldn’t have come up with a better actor under 30 to play the oddball Elliott. In 10 years or so, Ribisi will be taking over roles that were meant for Christopher Walken and John Malkovich. He plays kooky that well.

“Flight of the Phoenix” was directed by John Moore, who is quickly making a career out of directing movies about airplanes that crash. His first big Hollywood film was the Owen Wilson actioner “Behind Enemy Lines”, about a fighter pilot who crashes, well, behind enemy lines; then there was “Yeager”, about the legendary test pilot; and now “Phoenix”. Moore must really have an affinity for planes, which may explain why the film’s best moments involve the plane’s encounter with the sandstorm, which despite being heavy on CGI and models, still looks fantastic.

There’s little use in wondering what “Flight of the Phoenix” could have done to be a better movie. There’s never really any doubt that Frank and crew will survive their ordeal in the desert, and we even expect more deaths than the film actually offers up. For what it is — a good old fashion adventure picture — “Flight of the Phoenix” is good enough to recommend for a lazy Sunday afternoon. If nothing else, it’s pretty to look at.

John Moore (director) / Lukas Heller (1965 screenplay), Scott Frank, Edward Burns (screenplay)
CAST: Dennis Quaid …. Frank Towns
Tyrese …. A.J.
Giovanni Ribisi …. Elliott
Miranda Otto …. Kelly
Tony Curran …. Rodney
Sticky Fingaz …. Jeremy

Buy Flight of the Phoenix on DVD