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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

My notes on the remake.

Not content with two remakes of The Longest Yard/Mean Machine – later bumped up to three, if you count Death Race – the Aldrich Company pitches in with another remake of one of Robert Aldrich’s muscular, lasting guy pictures: John Moore, who went on to have a bash at The Omen, handles it professionally, and the cast is appealing, but it’s one of those solid remakes which would seem an above-average mainstream pic if you couldn’t take the DVD of the original movie off the shelf and see this story done much, much better. It’s billed as based on Lukas Heller’s script and Elleston Trevor’s novel, switches the remote setting from North Africa to the Gobi Desert (it was shot in the dunes of Namibia) and makes sure there’s a woman (Miranda Otto) on board—but tells the same story, in a slightly more obvious manner, not quite trusting the strengths of concept and character interplay. We get more ‘hope and dreams’ speeches (and ironic put-downs of the same), bonding dance-a-thons in the desert and a finale in which not only does the cobbled-together plane finally get into the air but the survivors have to be pursued by a horde of gun-waving bandit horsemen at the same time.

Aldrich started with the plane in the air and in trouble, introduced the characters under the credits, and then did the crash: Moore needs a prologue set at the just-closing oil-drilling station, with snatches of talk to pre-establish characters – it works, but less well than Aldrich’s simple shots of nervy folk in a turbulent plane (which gave equal-seeming single-card credits to the leads and characters instantly killed in the crash), especially since we have hackneyed bits about the kid (Jared Padalecki) whose superstitious plane-boarding ritual is compromised and the old resentment-and-attraction between the pilot (Dennis Quaid) and the lady engineer (Otto) whose command he’s dismantling. The crash itself is spectacular, albeit CGI-assisted, with an especially neat trick as one of the propellors scythes through the cabin. The Hardy Kruger character, a blond visionary geek who has the notion of cannibalising the plane to make a working escape craft, is played with a dye-job by Giovanni Ribisi, who comes across as a whiny, prissy megalomaniac cartoon. Hugh Laurie is the stuffed shirt company man who unbends in the desert, Tony Curran is an inspired replacement for Ian Bannen, ethnic diversity is handled by Tyrese Gibson (in the Richard Attenborough part, reduced since Otto gets most of the good scenes) and Kirk Jones (aka Sticky Fingaz, from the Blade TV show), Jacob Vargas is the amusing Mexican cook (a faintly patronising notion), Scott Michael Campbell as the guy desperate to get home because he has a baby he’s never seen (aaaah!), and Kervork Malikyan is the only character with any mystery about him but gets used to deliver infodumps about the desert.

There’s a lot of talk about dwindling supplies, and some precious water gets spilled in a fight, but this fast-paced 113 minute picture hasn’t the patience to convey the desperation and physical degradation of the survivors. The mostly merry band, whose squabbles flare up and pass in moments (compare the simmering resentments in the old film), set to work as if they were raising an Amish barn or toiling in a Soviet dignity-of-labour propaganda film. The process of plane-building is also made easier by a handy toolkit (even a generator and some night-lights), which helps get the film over with quicker, and the late-in-the-day revelation that the engineer’s experience is in designing model planes not the real ones is played out as a big scene with all the gang as spectators as opposed to the intimate, rather moving moment when James Stewart catches on but decides to keep quiet. It’s watchable, but – well, you know what I’m going to say … see The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) instead. A new Dirty Dozen is inevitable.

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