As far as remakes go, John Moore’s “The Flight of the Phoenix” isn’t half-bad. It sticks to the fundamentals of the 1965 Robert Aldrich original, about a bunch of construction workers stuck in a forbidding desert after a plane crash and cannibalizing the wreckage to fashion a new craft, pretty closely. It makes some changes, of course, shifting the locale from the Sahara to the Gobi and transforming one of the characters into a feisty woman to avoid an all-male show and allow for some slender hints of potential romance. It even improves on the first picture in a few respects. Certainly the opening crash sequence is much more impressive this time around as a result of forty years’ improvement in filmmaking technology–it makes for an exciting five minutes or so. And shaving more than a half-hour off Aldrich’s bloated 149-minute running-time is beneficial, too. So far, so good.
In the end, though, the remake suffers from a couple of fundamental flaws. One is that, quite simply, the first movie was no great shakes to begin with. It was a sort of sand-bound variant on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat,” mimicking the tensely confined ensemble pieces so beloved in the 1950s (just think of “Twelve Angry Men,” for instance); but in the effort to add action to the mix, the narrative opted for a very contrived set-up, which the picture never overcame, and when the big finale rolled around, it had a touch of the ludicrous about it. This new version shares those problems. Aldrich’s effort, however, overcame the inherent plot weaknesses by featuring a cast rich in character performers capable of not only selling the melodramatic material but making it corny fun in the process. There was, most notably, James Stewart as the crusty captain, but he was backed up by the likes of Richard Attenborough (always better in front of the camera than behind it), Ernest Borgnine (a staple of the disaster movies of the period), Peter Finch, George Kennedy, Ian Bannen, and–-a personal favorite–the sublimely oily Dan Duryea. Here the cast is a far more anonymous lot. Dennis Quaid’s combination of seedy charm and world-weariness works better in this case than it did in “The Alamo,” but he’s still no Stewart; and most of the remaining survivors (including Miranda Otto as the assertive, self-confident female on board) are played by the sort of competent but unremarkable second-stringers that one might expect to encounter in a movie made for television. Sometimes the thespian level descends seriously beneath the mediocre: rapper Sticky Fingaz, credited as Kirk Jones, is embarrassing as a rough-and-tumble crew member.
There is, however, one exception–Giovanni Ribisi as Elliott, the ultra-peculiar designer who spearheads the project to build a new plane from the shards of the old and challenges the captain for leadership of the group in the process. In the part played by Hardy Kruger in the first film, Ribisi gives a performance that could hardly be described as good in any conventional sense–it’s far too arch and affected for that, the sort of thing that Anthony Perkins might have done on a day when he gave his mannerisms full rein. But it’s vastly enjoyable to watch, and gives a much-needed kick to material that would otherwise be blandly ordinary. Ribisi endows this oddball nerd on whom everyone else comes to depend with a comically sinister aura, making him a strutting, willful little prima donna not unlike the textbook “arrogant Nazi” so familiar from World War II movies (think of Walter Slezak from “Lifetboat,” again). The campy eccentricity he brings to the part is a welcome respite from the essentially dour, rather drab acting that surrounds him. It also makes the big revelation about Elliott’s actual credentials work better than it should, even though–given some of the character’s actions, especially with respect to one of the bandits that endanger the bunch–his treatment as a hero at the close should cause some misgivings.
“The Flight of the Phoenix” is technically solid. Moore’s direction is competent, if at times a bit over-indulgent in dealing with some of the purpler lines in the Scott Frank-Edward Burns script (which also feels compelled to explain what the phoenix was as though addressing the words to mental defectives–a sign of the makers’ assessment of the audience they assume their picture will attract), and DP Brendan Galvin uses the desert setting well to capture a mood of combined vastness and desolation. (Marco Beltrami’s score, on the other hand, is at best workmanlike.) Still, despite its feel-good finale–a strenuous portrait of triumph over tribulation–the picture never really takes wing. The effort to bring Aldrich’s old movie back from the ashes like the fabled bird or the crashed plane ultimately feels like a fool’s errand; the result is more standard programmer than action blockbuster, a remake that may not be offensive but is basically unnecessary.