“Flight of the Phoenix” is a perfectly good B-grade adventure film about a group of people whose plane crashes in the Gobi Desert and they have to build a new plane out of the wreckage in order to fly to safety. Hmm. It sounds crazy when I say it, but in the film it makes perfect sense. Maybe you had to be there.
It’s a remake of a 1965 film that you haven’t seen, which in turn was based on a novel you haven’t read. In the new version, directed by John Moore (who also did the perfectly good B-grade war film “Behind Enemy Lines”), an oil company has closed down its unprofitable drilling expedition in Mongolia and sent pilots Towns (Dennis Quaid) and A.J. (Tyrese Gibson) to collect the few remaining employees. They are accompanied by a suit-clad corporate weasel named Ian (Hugh Laurie).
The employees aren’t happy about losing their jobs, and there’s a “shoot the messenger” mentality at first, with tough boss Kelly (Miranda Otto) locking horns with Towns (which means they are destined to become friends, as you are aware, if not lovers). But they all must band together, and fast, when the plane goes down in the desert in a most spectacular and terrifying crash sequence. They have food and water to last only a few weeks, and little hope of being discovered by anyone other than desert marauders. In the meantime, they are at the mercy of sandstorms and heat.
But they have with them a man named Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), who wandered onto the oil field a while back and has been hanging around ever since. No one knows what his deal is, exactly, but he claims he designs airplanes and can help his fellow survivors — who are skilled at welding and rigging and whatnot, having worked in the oil business — build a new one out of the wreckage of the old one. Having few alternatives, they set to work.
(Let me point out that while I like Ribisi generally, his performance here — complete with nerdy “character” voice and idiosyncratic mannerisms — is irritating.)
The movie is populated by the usual assortment of disparate characters: an Australian, a Mexican, a guy with an eye-patch, a stuffy guy, a Scotsman, a woman, and so forth. They sit around the campfire and talk about what they’ll do when they get home — what they’ll eat, who they’ll sleep with, all that. These are the familiar devices with which movies like this are made. It’s not groundbreaking, but sometimes it still works.
The screenplay (by Scott Frank and actor Edward Burns) is structured so that the film maintains an even pace. There’s always something happening — a character is lost in a sandstorm, someone sets out on foot to find help, everyone must decide whether to rebuild the plane — even though, technically, nothing important really happens until the end. A movie about people sitting around the desert with nothing to do runs a high risk of being dull, but “Flight of the Phoenix” has enough wit, energy and charisma among its performers to keep it soaring.
B (1 hr., 53 min.; )