Originally created 12/16/04

At the Movies: 'Flight of the Phoenix'



Like the mythical phoenix bird rising up from its own ashes, yet another remake is coming in for a landing at movie theaters.

And like its predecessors in a year overrun by resurrected stories, the plane-crash tale "Flight of the Phoenix" just can't straighten up and fly right.

Starring Dennis Quaid in the role originated by James Stewart, the movie is 2004's most literal update of an old flick, down to a handful of dialogue exchanges lifted from its 1965 forerunner and a boxcar-like cargo plane similar to the one in the original.

Yet characters and relationships are dumbed down to fit today's standards of superficiality in adventure films, blunting the tension of the original and leaving little of its nuance. The remake also piles on action-flick bombast, from overblown visual effects to earsplitting music.

The new version does retain the startling revelation that comes toward the end of the story, which will provide a satisfying little jolt for anyone who has not seen the original.

Producer William Aldrich - whose father, Robert, directed the 1965 version - hatched the idea of redoing the movie, and a quality tandem of Scott Frank ("Minority Report," "Get Shorty") and actor-filmmaker Edward Burns ("The Brothers McMullen") share screenwriting credit.

But this version suffers from ham-fisted direction by John Moore, who did commercials for Adidas, SEGA and others before making his movie debut on 2001's frenetic action tale "Behind Enemy Lines."

Quaid plays Frank Towns, a jaded pilot ferrying oil workers in his ratty cargo craft. The big differences between the new movie and its predecessor are the location - the Gobi Desert instead of the Sahara - and the addition of a woman (Miranda Otto as an oil-rig boss) to an otherwise all-male lineup.

Frank and co-pilot AJ (Tyrese Gibson) encounter a sandstorm so ridiculously monstrous it resembles one of the end-of-the-world climatological disasters in Quaid's "The Day After Tomorrow."

The plane's radio antenna is sheared off and the craft goes down hundreds of miles off course, leaving the survivors no way to call for help.

Mystery passenger Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), an aircraft designer, initially draws Frank's scorn when he suggests they can build a new plane from the wreckage of the old and fly to safety.

Though convinced the makeshift plane will never fly, Frank eventually agrees to try, persuaded that it's better for the group to stay busy in a futile endeavor than wait around to die.

There are occasional moments of real kinship among members of the disparate group, but the overall dynamic shallowly flits from antagonism to camaraderie and back with jarring abruptness. One minute, they all hate each other, the next, they're devoted chums.

As if surviving a crash, struggling to stay alive and constructing a new plane were not drama enough, the group is needlessly menaced by smugglers on horseback. These desert rats winds up a big distraction to the movie's climactic action sequence.

On the plus side, "Flight of the Phoenix" is the last of Hollywood's mediocre remake lineup for 2004, which included "Alfie," "Dawn of the Dead," "Walking Tall," "The Stepford Wives," "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Shall We Dance?"

Get ready for 2005, whose slate includes such familiar titles as "The Longest Yard," "The Amityville Horror," "The Pink Panther," "Fun With Dick and Jane" and "House of Wax."

"Flight of the Phoenix," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for some language, action and violence. Running time: 112 minutes. Two stars out of four.