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Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

The only way out is up

Directed by:

John Moore

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 0 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13

Country: United States

When an oil-drilling operation in Mongolia is shut down, jaded pilot Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid) and his cocky co-pilot AJ (Tyrese Gibson) are sent to evacuate its staff and equipment. On the way back, the cargo plane is hit by a huge sandstorm, and crashlands in the middle of the Gobi desert. Left in punishingly harsh conditions with no communications equipment, the bickering survivors seem doomed – until an aloof man named Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi) who had hitched a ride with them reveals that he is an aeronautic designer and suggests building a new plane stripped down from the wreckage of the old one. With supplies running out, and murderous smugglers moving in, the ragtag team must lay aside their differences and work together fast.

If 'Flight of the Phoenix' sounds eerily familiar, this is because it is a remake of Robert Aldrich's 'The Flight of the Phoenix' (1965), sticking closely to the plot of the original while stripping it down from 142 to 113 minutes, updating the dialogue and characters (now there are African-Americans and even a woman), and shearing away that pesky definite article from the front of the title, in the hope that all this streamlining will get the film off the ground with minimal turbulence. Unfortunately, though, the film's familiarity also derives from a whole cargo-load of clichés that prevent it from ever reaching any great heights. Apart from all the lucky charms and family photos used as lazy shorthand for pathos, most of the characters are easily recognisable stereotypes – the feisty woman (Miranda Otto), the family man (Scott Michael Campbell), the uptight company representative (Hugh Laurie), the generic Arab (Kevork Malikyan) whose desert origins apparently license him to spout all manner of mystic mumbo jumbo, and the black guy (Kirk Jones) who gets everyone dancing to the stereo that he has commandeered (AND he sports a pirate's eyepatch!). Only Towns and Elliott have engaging story arcs, the former an uncaring cynic who has to learn to be a responsible leader, the latter a quiet, unassuming man just waiting for the chance to live out his megalomaniac fantasies – and it is the clash between these two flawed, rather unlikeable characters that keeps things interesting.

With this film and his previous 'Behind Enemy Lines' (2001), director John Moore is turning stories of downed planes into something of a specialty, and 'Flight of the Phoenix' easily earns its place in a growing body of works ('Alive', 'Fearless', even Fight Club) that feature absolutely spectacular aircrash sequences. Moore’s handling of the film’s tone, however, is every bit as bumpy. Despite the withering heat, further freak storms, and subplot-smuggling bandits, the characters rarely break a sweat, as though they were just on an exotic summer holiday rather than in mortal peril – and while for anyone paying attention to the title it is no mystery that the Phoenix does indeed fly, Moore’s decision to close the film with a montage of ‘where-are-they-now?’ shots (this one owns his own salsa restaurant, that one works for NASA, etc) is better suited to a teen comedy than to a film in which several people die.

There are films far worse than ‘Flight of the Phoenix’ – but it flies a little too low to register on the discriminating filmgoer’s radar.

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It's Got: A scene which will make you think twice about ever going for a pee alone in the desert.

It Needs: Fewer clichés, and a more even tone.

Alternatives:

Alive, The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

Summary

This stripped-down remake gets off the ground, but never soars.

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