MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Survival Drama/Stars: Dennis Quaid, Giovanni Ribisi, Tyrese Gibson, Miranda Otto, Tony Curran, Hugh Laurie, Scott Michael Campbell, Sticky Fingaz, Jacob Vargas, Kevork Malikyan, Jared Padalecki, Paul Ditchfield, Martin Hindy, Bob Brown, Anthony Wong/Runtime: 113 minutes
In the long ago month and year that was December of 2004, I think it can quite easily be said that due to a fairly hectic release schedule filled to the brim with distinct slices of cinematic pie, there were unfortunately quite a few that were not going to get nearly as much attention from either a commercial nor a creative point of view. Sure even with a void in the marketing department, some of those movies would eventually find the people they were made for be it by virtue of the stoic yet iconic professional who made it as in the case of Clint Eastwood’s boxing drama and Oscar winning Million Dollar Baby, the distinct quirkiness of the film’s director, lead actor, and rest of cast as in the case of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, or even an actor choosing a project that was not really their usual bill of fare such as Adam Sandler in the dramedy Spanglish. Yet with all of those in mind there is a slice of cinematic pie that was released that year that has none of those distinct qualities going for it and, due to functioning as a simple triumph against all odds kind of saga, was one that was by and large looked past when it came out that far gone December though in all fairness the fact that it was a remake to a movie that I’m pretty sure 99% of the film going community had either never heard of or never wished to see remade also probably played a pretty decent size part in the proceedings as well. I am of course talking about the 2004 take on the iconic survival saga that is Flight of the Phoenix. Yet for all the flaws this movie has going for it, I do think that perhaps the time has come for this criminally underseen movie to finally get a little bit more attention than it has gotten in its first going on 17 years of existence. That’s because whilst yes this movie does have its flaws and yes it most certainly is a product that I don’t think a lot of people were clamoring for, it also is a fairly well acted and fairly solidly constructed little movie if you’re willing to give it the time of day. Yes you are still infinitely better off watching the original, but this is still at the end of the day one remake that is good for what it is and also is thankfully nowhere near as bad or insulting for that matter as a movie like this easily could have been.
The plot is as follows: Flight of the Phoenix opens its riveting tale of survival at a fairly odd place and that is at the end of something. To be more specific, this film gets underway as a group of workers at an facility in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia receive news of their impending termination in the form of the arrival of a particularly infamous pilot by the name of Frank Towns. A man whose arrival is known to be the, for all intents and purposes, death knoll for any group of employees unlucky enough to have him arrive at their place of work. On this particular instance, we see Frank arrive to shut this project down, get all the project’s crucial hardware loaded on the plane, and then promptly and swiftly fly back to civilization with a ragtag group of people that includes a corporate executive by the name of Ian and the now-former head of this team by the name of Kelly. Yet we soon see that the seemingly routine trip back soon hits an unexpected wrinkle in the form of the plane crossing paths with a vicious sandstorm that results in the plane both losing a propeller and having to make an emergency landing in a sequence that should guarantee this movie never being permitted to be shown as an in-flight film on any of the major airlines ever. Thus finding themselves stranded in the middle of the desert with only a little bit in terms of both water and food to keep them all alive, we see as the group attempts to figure out a way to get out of the desert alive only to stumble upon a way that is perhaps the craziest way imaginable. That of course being that they will find a way to rebuild the plane in such a way that it will not only fly again, but also be able to get them out of the desert and back home. Thus with the aid of a quirky passenger by the name of Elliott, we watch as Frank, his co-pilot, Kelly, Ian, and the rest of the starting to dwindle number of survivors start to attempt to try and build a new plane from what remains of both the equipment from the old expedition as well as the old plane in the hopes that it might be enough to both save their lives and ensure they are able to at long last make their way home.
Now right off the bat I will say that there are at the least a pair of distinct components that help to elevate this mindless but perfectly fun and quite serviceable slice of cinematic pie. The first of these is the fact that this is, for the most part, beautifully shot. Indeed film helmer John Moore does a wonderful job at not only showcasing for us the desolate and arid desert landscape that our cast of heroes is squaring off against in their desperate battle for survival, but also the smaller moments where characters find themselves squaring off with each other as well. I mean make no mistake dear reader: this Phoenix might be a quicker sit than the original, but it still makes it fairly clear that at first the people at the heart of this story would rather have next to nothing to do with each other and it is only in the quest for survival do we see them finally find a common ground to start throwing in their proverbial lots and working together with the others. The second component that this slice of cinematic pie most assuredly has working in its favor would have to be in regards to the casting department. Sure no one in this cast is akin to the original film getting such names as Richard Attenborough, James Stewart, and Ernest Borgnine, but they all do fairly dependably good work and do seem fairly well suited to their respective parts. Indeed taking over in a role originally played by acting icon James Stewart is no mean feat, but Quaid is actually pretty darn good as the crusty, grumpy, but not entirely incapable of emotion Frank Towns. We also get wonderful work from Tyrese Gibson who is equal parts sassy and talented as Frank’s dependable co-pilot A.J., Miranda Otto who brings a wonderful authoritative presence to the part of Kelly, and the always enjoyable Hugh Laurie who brings his typical amount of gravitas to what could have easily been the one-dimensional role of Ian. Indeed seeing his change from a snooty corporate executive-type to a guy who was willing to pitch in and help was actually one of the more fairly satisfying arcs in the movie. By far though, I think the casting highlight in this film was the always dependable Giovanni Ribsi in the pivotal role of Elliott. Indeed Ribsi manages to conjure up just the perfect amount of inspiring quirkiness to really transform this character into the necessary catalyst the group needs to give this truly oddball and seemingly out of left field idea he has a try even whilst still dealing with a significant degree of anxious uncertainty of it even working in the first place. Suffice it to say this immensely talented group of performers ingeniously makes the choice to not allow any of the others to try and one-up them or make the movie all about them from an acting perspective and instead they give their all to the movie feeling more like an ensemble piece. As a result, we see that this ingenious choice on the part of the cast is able to help this slice of cinematic pie conjure up a spot-on atmosphere for this group of people who start out being indifferent at best to one another, but who by the end of the film have discovered that they all wish to have even a shot in heck at making it home then they need to start leaving their egos at the door and begin to work together.
Of course for all the good that we get both in terms of this slice of cinematic pie’s casting choices and it’s showcasing of the various conflicts that the cast of characters all have with both nature and (at least at first) each other, we also unfortunately are treated to a fairly distracting (and if I’m being honest unnecessary) sub-plot which deals a pack of desert bandits who have set their sights on robbing the downed plane and killing our pack of heroes before they are able to leave. It is in that aspect that we see that, having previously worked on the underrated 2001 military action film Behind Enemy Lines that film helmer John Moore’s time at the helm is a little less assertive in regards to conjuring up a series of skirmishes that are somewhat believable between this pack of bandits and our group of heroes than when he is dealing with the conflicts the survivors of the crash have with both the elements and each other as well. I mean I guess that this slice of cinematic pie needed to find some way to distinguish itself from the original in some “meaningful way” and I guess that by default a slice of cinematic pie that plays its archetype of man against the elements as if it’s a checklist rather than a guide can really operate nowadays if there isn’t a little bit of a human complication thrown into the mix to serve as a personification of what our group of heroes is squaring off against. At the same time though, it should be noted that when these moments occur in the film we unfortunately witness that style darn near completely overrides any degree of substance whatsoever. A fact that only proves to be an issue since not only these moments unnecessary to the overall narrative, but also because I don’t really care how cool it might be the fact remains that when you have a cast of characters you’ve come to care about getting shot at in slow-motion cutaways it can be quite jarring and take you out of a movie a little bit. Suffice it to say that this is most definitely the case with this one.
All in all even when taking that last component of this particular film very much into account, I still can’t help myself when it comes to recommending this particular slice of cinematic pie for a pair of reasons. Those of course being that this slice of cinematic pie, much in the same vein as the plane at the heart of this film’s narrative, is both up against some severe odds and because success for this film is very much like success for these characters and their objective in that it’s highly unlikely yet by no means impossible. It is with that in mind that this distinct take on Flight of the Phoenix was most assuredly seen by many at the time as Winter 2004’s most unlikely to succeed narrative and at the same time it is also one slice of cinematic pie that I am not surprised to learn has not been the recipient of belated critical acclaim all these years later since rarely do slices of cinematic pie of this variety make it past opening weekend if even that long. At the same time however, if you are a movie goer who is fed up with always viewing the latest critical darling that is sure to garner up some serious awards attention or a completely over the top Hollywood blockbuster in the vein of the Transformers series then definitely look all over and try to find this slice of cinematic pie and give it at the very least a try. Sure you might not come out of this slice of cinematic pie’s 1 hr, 46 minute runtime (not including credits) feeling like you saw an instantly iconic addition to the legacy of cinema or something that is sure to be a game changer for its respective genre, but (and perhaps just as important) I can also guarantee that at the very least you’ll have a good time and sometimes that’s all you really need from a movie and in that respect this slice of cinematic pie delivers the goods and then some. On a scale of 1-5 I give Flight of the Phoenix “04” a solid 3 out of 5