Robert Aldrich's 1965 "Flight of the Phoenix" was such a terrific adventure film that it's a relief to report that it has received a worthy remake, with Aldrich's son William serving as a co-producer.
Although there was hardly any need for a remake, director John Moore and writers Scott Frank and Edward Burns (yes, the actor-writer-director) have done an excellent job of retaining key elements of the original plot but have created a whole new set of characters that gives the film an entirely contemporary feel. Most important, they have managed to generate such intense suspense that even someone who cherished the original film can become absorbed in the action. In one crucial aspect they've improved upon the original: At 112 minutes the new version is stronger for being 35 minutes shorter than the first.
Dennis Quaid's Frank Towns, a swaggering, cynical captain of a well-worn, recycled C-119 military cargo plane, is no happier to see Miranda Otto's Kelly, chief roustabout of an oil rig in the Tan sag Basin in Mongolia, than she is to see him. She knows her company has sent him to evacuate her and her crew but believes that shutting down the exploratory operation is premature, and he does not relish the trek to such a remote and risky locale. Frank's cocky co-pilot, AJ (Tyrese Gibson), echoes Frank's every attitude.
The C-119 is in flight only briefly when the endless stretch of the Gobi Desert is swept by an epic sandstorm, which first rips off the plane's antenna and then destroys its left engine. Towns maneuvers a crash landing that even solicits the admiration of Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), the group's odd man out — a slender blond youth who turned up at the oil rig explaining he was a student wandering around the world.
Geeky and so unpopular he nearly gets left behind, Elliott suddenly gets everyone's attention when he announces that he is an aircraft designer and the C-119 can be converted into a single-engine plane to fly out its dozen or so passengers, after it becomes clear their chances of rescue are virtually nil.
Working from Lukas Heller's screenplay for the original film and from Elleston Trevor's novel upon which it was based, Frank and Burns work up a wealth of incidents to maintain momentum in a story of people stranded in a desert at the height of summer. They also come up with a clutch of deft characterizations and take pains to maintain credibility in the face of an increasingly credibility-defying enterprise.
The writers and Moore are especially good at the tense interplay between their characters, notably between Towns and Elliott, a classic clash between brawn and brains that must work itself to a level of mutual respect if the C-119, aptly dubbed the Phoenix, has a prayer of taking off again.
The cast includes two African Americans, a Latino, a philosophical Middle Easterner and a number of Brits, including Otto, and the filmmakers avoid stereotypes; even Quaid's surly Towns is the most reluctant of leaders. Desert locations in Namibia are spectacular in their grandeur, nicely completing the first-class package for "Flight of the Phoenix."
'Flight of the Phoenix'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some language, action, violence
Times guidelines: Too intense for the very young but suitable for mature older children
Dennis Quaid...Frank Towns
A 20th Century Fox presentation of an Aldrich Group/Davis Entertainment Group production. Director John Moore. Producers John Davis, William Aldrich, Wyck Godfrey, T. Alex Blum. Executive producer Ric Kidney. Screenplay Scott Frank and Edward Burns; based on a screenplay by Lukas Heller and the novel by Elleston Trevor. Cinematographer Brendan Galvin. Aerial photographer David B. Nowell. Editor Don Zimmerman. Music Marco Beltrami. Costumes George L. Little. Production designer Patrick Lumb. Visual effects supervisor David Goldberg. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.In general release.