Remaking a movie that anybody with cable can watch twice a week seems a little foolhardy, particularly when the update is as perfunctory as John Moore’s Flight of the Phoenix. But it’s a film full of boneheaded risks, the most notable being that it expends all its thrills in a plane-crash scene a half-hour in.
Based on a 1964 potboiler by novelist Elleston Trevor and the 1965 Robert Aldrich screen adaptation starring James Stewart, Phoenix is the quintessential desert survival flick: A disparate group en route from a defunct Mongolian oil rig crash-land in the middle of the Gobi Desert when their pilot (Dennis Quaid) tries to outrun a sandstorm. After taking stock of their chances for survival, they reluctantly agree to help a mysterious passenger (Giovanni Ribisi) rebuild the aircraft out of spare parts and wreckage. In the meantime, a band of gunrunners—inscrutable locals, naturally—turns up to expedite the situation.
This Phoenix screams hack job, although producer William Aldrich (son of Robert) claims to have spent years developing it. That doesn’t explain the lazy, trite dialogue, which has co-screenwriter—though, mercifully, not co-star—Edward Burns’s fingerprints all over it, or the distracting Tom of Finland-esque poses the actors routinely strike; only Miranda Otto, emoting her heart out to no avail, remains tastefully be-jumpsuited throughout. Worse yet is the film’s chipper tone, which makes very little seem at stake. None of the characters exhibit anything like real panic or mortal dread (their incessant bellowing hardly counts), and by film’s end the adventure appears less a matter of base survival than a beach barbecue gone slightly sour.
Moore’s manic direction falls far short of the weird, quiescent tension and near-repugnant characterizations Aldrich achieves, and while his cast seems game enough, Quaid is nobody’s idea of a Jimmy Stewart stand-in. Then again, Stewart had eminently watchable oddballs like Richard Attenborough and Hardy Krüger to play off; Quaid has only the weasly Ribisi and a thoroughly checked-out Hugh Laurie.
Yet in spite of the many incentives to bail out, the impulse to stick around long enough to see the castaways’ jerry-rigged airplane take off is as overwhelming as jaded disappointment is assured. If that’s not a metaphor for the sorry state of Hollywood B movies, I don’t know what is.