Flight of the Phoenix

Forget Major league baseball — maybe it’s time all the investigations into doping and steroid abuse made their way over to Hollywood. How else to explain the toned, buff and utterly chiseled torso the 50-plus Dennis Quaid flaunts in this passable remake of Robert Aldrich’s mid-’60s stranded-in-the-desert adventure? It’s clear that director John Moore is in awe of said abs: Backlit, from a low angle or overhead, in slow-motion or handheld, Quaid is shot so reverently, he looks as if he could give youthful co-stars Tyrese and Sticky Fingaz some pointers in the gym.

One of the hardest working stars in showbiz — Jude Law isn’t the only one who’s busy — makes his third of four big-budget starring appearances this year as the gruff, uncaring, headstrong Captain Towns, a role originally essayed by that god of passive-aggressive persuasion, Jimmy Stewart. Alpha-male Quaid is no Stewart, to be sure, but that’s just the first of many detours screenwriters Scott Frank and Ed Burns take from their source material. Updated for a new millennium, this Flight of the Phoenix drops the original’s post-World War II setting and ethical conflicts in favor of a go-for-the-gut, context-free tale of survival. The doomed mission begins at an oil rig being downsized for lack of profitability — but aside from a fleeting reference to Kuwait and an unfortunate montage set to “Hey Ya” (will someone please declare a moratorium on any further use of this song?), there’s no attempt to bring current events into the mix. The motley crew of pilots, passengers and pundits has been expanded to include a representative of just about every ethnic group possible, not to mention a token member of the opposite sex (the always-plucky Miranda Otto, trading in her Middle Earth armor for what looks like Rosie the Riveter’s coveralls).

After the spectacularly exhilarating opening plane crash, the center of the film is largely an attempt to ratchet up tension and suspense for the big finale, and for the most part, director Moore and his able cast seem up to the task. Where his first film, the detestable stranded-in-Serbia adventure Behind Enemy Lines, had about as much depth — and as many cuts-per-second — as a Pepsi commercial, this one benefits from a streamlined, no-brainer plot and an emphasis on well-paced, old-Hollywood suspense. Moore still can’t resist dipping occasionally into his grab bag of technical tricks and look-Ma camera moves, and the screenwriters’ piss-and-vinegar dialogue often rings false (you’re best advised to plug your ears for the first 10 minutes). But it’s when the gleefully over-the-top Giovanni Ribisi begins throwing his diminutive weight around that the film really takes flight. Channeling the original’s Hardy Kruger — and perhaps Truman Capote as well — Ribisi is a nervous bundle of pent-up energy, a walking gallery of stammering, mincing and hand-wringing. It’s a true oddball performance in an otherwise textbook study in big-screen normalcy — in other words, exactly what an affable-but-forgettable Saturday-afternoon adventure like Phoenix needs.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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