Remake of helmer Robert Aldrich's 1965 "The Flight of the Phoenix," about an airplane crew and passengers who crash-land in a remote desert, shows both how far Hollywood's tech departments have advanced in 40 years and how shallow the pool of solid action thesps has become. What would seem a natural vehicle for souped-up, Bruckheimer-like money machine has been kept more low-key in the testosterone zone, thanks in part to Aldrich's son William, who as one of the producers has shepherded project since the mid-'90s. Slightly old-fashioned approach may dampen turnout of action-heads during the holidays, but, once pic lands as a bells-and-whistles DVD, biz will be combustible.

Remake of helmer Robert Aldrich’s 1965 “The Flight of the Phoenix,” about an airplane crew and passengers who crash-land in a remote desert, shows both how far Hollywood’s tech departments have advanced in 40 years and how shallow the pool of solid action thesps has become. What would seem a natural vehicle for souped-up, Bruckheimer-like money machine has been kept more low-key in the testosterone zone, thanks in part to Aldrich’s son William, who as one of the producers has shepherded project since the mid-’90s. Slightly old-fashioned approach may dampen turnout of action-heads during the holidays, but, once pic lands as a bells-and-whistles DVD, biz will be combustible.

Because Aldrich fans cherish “Flight” as one of the brawny helmer’s most fulfilling looks at his favorite topic — what men in battle reveal about themselves — any re-do is a cause for both anticipation and concern. Fans hope the great action set pieces can be boosted by the latest CGI wizardry, but, at the same time, any new cast is faced with the unenviable task of trying to match the memory of James Stewart’s pilot, Richard Attenborough’s co-pilot, Hardy Kruger’s engineer, and a support crew played by Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine, Ronald Fraser, Ian Bannen and Dan Duryea.

Rising action director John Moore’s extremely handsome and fluidly paced production confirms both the hopes and doubts, while the script by disparate writers Scott Frank and Edward Burns — based on both Elleston Trevor’s novel and Lukas Heller’s rich, character-driven script for Aldrich — barely plumbs the depths of either source.

Younger auds may dismiss pic as less pumped-up than this sort of studio-driven fare typically is –including Moore’s own debut, “Behind Enemy Lines.” But, Moore displays real strides here as a director of tense, big-scaled action, dropping characters into slim-odds, real-world situations.

With Johnny Cash warbling on the soundtrack, pilot Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid), with cocky right-hand man AJ (Tyrese Gibson), lands his giant C-119 cargo plane near an oil rig in deepest Mongolia.

The wells have gone dry and have been ordered capped by oil company’s toppers and manager Ian (Hugh Laurie). The crew, led by pissed-off Kelly (Miranda Otto), is told to pack and board the cargo plane for a trip to Beijing.

Towns, known as “Shut-It-Down-Towns,” takes no guff and seems to view the crew as cargo to load and drop off, while AJ is even more callous. Mystery man Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), unattached to the flight or the oil crew, boards last.

Towns misses info about a huge sandstorm in their flight path and ignores Elliott’s warning to change course. Plane’s headlong plunge into the storm sets up pic’s most spectacular and tense sequence, with the plane finally coming to rest on yellowish dunes after losing two passengers, half the cargo and a propeller. Mano-a-mano matches promptly start up.

For good portions of the script, writers Frank and Burns adhere to much of what’s good in Heller’s story: The older crew members urge the younger ones not to walk out into the desert alone, and Elliott, an aircraft designer, gradually convinces the group they can create a new plane out of the intact parts of the crashed cargo ship. Dramatically crucial here is the prickly Towns’ reluctance to cede authority to weasel-like Elliott, who may be their only hope but whose arrogance is chilling.

While in the original pic, character flaws triggered the obstacles, in the new version they seem prompted more by the need for another action scene. That’s primarily due to the supporting characters being barely sketched in — only Kevork Malikyan’s thoughtful older Arab gent registers as interesting — and to director Moore’s forte for depicting physical danger.

The notion that the oil company has done a cost-benefit analysis nixing a rescue of the group is a nice added political dig at Hollywood’s new arch-nemesis — the corporation — though action’s shift from the Arabian desert to the Gobi takes pic out of the world’s political hot-spot.

But a crew of generally mid-level actors can’t keep this “Phoenix” afloat, and most of the dramatic charge is just not there. Locked into his familiar scowl for too much of the running time, Quaid tends to overly stress Towns’ dark side and nearly loses the sense that he is the story’s hero — something Stewart kept in virtuoso balance.

Ribisi adopts robotic mannerisms that Moore’s low-angle shots make into threatening images, but there’s an empty core to the characterization. Otto makes a strong early impression, but her Kelly gets lost in the sands with virtually nothing to do after the crash — a plight that also affects Gibson’s AJ, perhaps the poorest character transfer from the original.

Moore captains an aces production crew, led by lenser Brendan Galvin, who gets the most from the vivid colors of the desert locales in western Namibia. Aerial work, steered by vet airborne lenser David B. Nowell, is solid and made more thrilling by digital effects support from numerous effects houses. While Marco Beltrami’s score is notably restrained, song selections drift into the bizarrely inappropriate.

Flight of the Phoenix

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of an Aldrich Group, Davis Entertainment Co. production. Produced by John Davis, William Aldrich, Wyck Godfrey, T. Alex Blum. Executive producer, Ric Kidney. Directed by John Moore. Screenplay, Scott Frank, Edward Burns, based on a screenplay by Lukas Heller and novel by Elleston Trevor.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Brendan Galvin; editor, Don Zimmerman; music, Marco Beltrami; production designer, Patrick Lamb; supervising art director, Andrew Menzies; art directors, Christopher James Bass, Alan Hook; set designer, Adriana M. Dardas; set decorators, Matthew Sullivan, Eliza Solesbury; costume designer, George L. Little; sound (Dolby Digital), Ian Voigt; supervising sound editor, Jay Wilkinson; visual effects supervisor, David Goldberg; special effects coordinator, Stan Parks; digital effects, CafŽ FX; animation and visual effects, Rhythm & Hues Studios, the Farm; additional special visual effects and digital animation, Digital Domain; additional visual effects, Mar Vista Ventures, Digital Dream; makeup, Fiona Connon; aerial coordinator, David Paris; aerial camera, David B. Nowell; stunt coordinators, Jimmy Roberts, Bob Brown, Jim Churchman; assistant director, Julian Wall; second unit director, Jimmy Roberts; second unit camera, Ciaran Barry; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, Los Angeles, Dec. 13, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Frank Towns - Dennis Quaid Elliott - Giovanni Ribisi AJ - Tyrese Gibson Kelly - Miranda Otto Ian - Hugh Laurie Rodney - Tony Curran Jeremy - Kirk Jones Sammi - Jacob Vargas Liddle - Scott Michael Campbell Rady - Kevork Malikyan

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