Movie review: 'Flight of the Phoenix'

1½ stars (out of 4)

History doesn't repeat itself with a new high-tech remake of "Flight of the Phoenix," the classic 1965 Robert Aldrich adventure movie about a crashed plane in the Sahara Desert whose survivors attempt to build a smaller plane from the wreckage and fly it out.

In that '60s classic, the "Phoenix's" old pilot and young plane designer were played, supremely well, by Jimmy Stewart and Hardy Kruger. It was no surprise that the drama crackled and the vehicle took flight.

Here, director John Moore and stars Dennis Quaid and Giovanni Ribisi, in the Stewart and Kruger parts, take that movie, transplant it to the Gobi Desert, add an actress (Miranda Otto) to the first movie's all-male, all-star lineup and try to jazz it up and get it off the ground again. But they simply turn it into a motorless, rudderless wreck that is top-heavy with cliches.

If there were ever a clear demonstration that scripts and actors ultimately matter more than technology, it's this "Phoenix," which wastes a good story and the good actors (including Quaid, Ribisi, Otto and Hugh Laurie) trying to bring it to life.

The original, with its explosive cast interplay and clever Lukas Heller script, is one of the best survival movies. This one doesn't deserve to survive. Moore, whose feature debut was the undeniably exciting but vapid "Behind Enemy Lines," is good at pyrotechnics and, early on, he gives us the best thing he has to offer--a sandstorm. That's the only aspect of this "Phoenix" better than the first.

We have dire presentiments of future silliness when Moore and his writers (Scott Frank and actor-director Edward Burns) decide to rip the plane open and send one passenger hurtling into sandy space. Back in 1965, actor William Aldrich (Robert's son and a producer here) died in the crash, but nowhere near so spectacularly and one soon wonders whether these scripters are writing this stuff on purpose. Was the original script lost in the sandstorm?

Soon, the movie is lost as well. Quaid's Frank Towns bickers with evicted oil-drilling boss Kelly (Otto), and he and copilot AJ (Tyrese Gibson) start tiffing with Ribisi's Elliot. Sermons about hope start bubbling up. Elliott, the pale wonk/plane designer, who claims he can design and build the new plane (but conceals crucial info about his background), starts annoying everyone, shooting strangers and demanding that everyone say "Please." People start breaking up their own water supply and a band of murderous bandit nomads show up, ambushing and sneering.

At one point, the scriptwriters actually bury their "Phoenix" in the sand. Later, the bandits show up again and start chasing everybody. Why not just rely on the incredible drama of the original, which makes us wonder if the plane will fly?

If you're looking for a top adventure or aviation movie, your best bet is to wait for "The Aviator." This clunky remake can't rise from the ashes, nor would you want it to. The only really good things you can say about the second "Phoenix" is that they play Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere" under the opening credits and Steve Winwood's "Gimme Some Lovin'" under the closing ones. And they have a pretty good sandstorm.

"Flight of the Phoenix"

Directed by John Moore; written by Scott Frank and Edward Burns, based on the screenplay by Lukas Heller and the novel by Elleston Trevor; photographed by Brendan Galvin; edited by Don Zimmerman; production designed by Patrick Lumb; music by Marco Beltrami; produced by John Davis, William Aldrich, Wyck Godfrey and T. Alex Blum. A Twentieth Century Fox release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:52. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some language, action and violence.)

Frank Towns - Dennis Quaid
AJ - Tyrese Gibson
Elliott - Giovanni Ribisi
Kelly - Miranda Otto
Rodney - Tony Curran
Sammi - Jacob Vargas

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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