- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

Simulated airplane crashes turn out to be Hollywood’s favorite spectacle for the holiday season. “The Aviator” has two teeth-gnashing May Day set pieces, placing Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes in mortal peril while struggling to stabilize experimental machines during test flights. “Flight of the Phoenix” has to settle for a single crash landing, since the plot precludes variations.

A digital dust storm of towering magnitude enhances this early, obligatory calamity in distinctively nightmarish respects. It also enlarges one’s esteem for Dennis Quaid as the fictional pilot, Frank Towns, suddenly a hostage to freak conditions while flying a C-119 transport over the Gobi Desert. Towns masterfully rides the whirlwind to a crash landing that leaves only three passengers as immediate fatalities. He also proves admirably handy with a fire extinguisher, a revolver and a magneto in subsequent do-or-die situations.

Ultimately, Towns is called upon to swallow his pride as a hard-bitten leader of men and humor the twerpy eccentric among the survivors, Giovanni Ribisi as Elliott, who claims to be an aeronautical designer. The other survivors aren’t quite sure of his credentials. Towns and his co-pilot, A.J. (Tyrese Gibson in an appealing sidekick assignment), have been assigned to ferry the employees of an oil company called Aramco from their desert rig, which proved a dry well, back to home base in Beijing.

Elliott, an annoying prima donna, believes that a down-sized escape vehicle can be constructed from the wreckage of the plane. While scanning the horizon for bandits and compensating for mishaps and miscalculations, the survivors strive to rise above adversity through a tenacious group effort.

“Phoenix” is, of course, a remake of a notable castaway adventure movie of almost 40 years ago. Directed by Robert Aldrich and ostensibly set in the Sahara Desert, it starred James Stewart as a grizzled bush pilot named Frank Towns. He had to suffer the know-it-all egotism of a German designer called Dorfmann, played by Hardy Kruger, whose blondness Mr. Ribisi simulates with a funny bleach job. Unfortunately, he fails to authenticate Mr. Kruger’s insinuating and disarming flair for self-confidence. Elliott is rather like a broken marionette model of Dorfmann.

The entertainment value of the updated “Phoenix” may be enhanced if you recall the original film. A box-office disappointment at the time, it ran about half an hour longer than the new edition, allowing for more character interplay among the cast members. Mr. Aldrich had a very diverting fraternity at his disposal: Mr. Stewart, Mr. Kruger, Peter Finch, Richard Attenborough, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, George Kennedy, Ronald Fraser, Dan Duryea, Christian Marquand.

The “Phoenix” of 2004 falls short of comparable distinction.

**

TITLE: “Flight of the Phoenix”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional graphic violence and fleeting profanity)

CREDITS: Directed by John Moore. Screenplay by Scott Frank and Edward Burns, based on the Lukas Heller screenplay for the 1965 movie and a novel by Elleston Trevor. Cinematography by Brendan Galvin and David B. Nowell (aerial photography). Production design by Patrick Lumb. Costume design by George L. Little. Visual effects supervisor: David Goldberg. Music by Marco Beltrami

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

WEB SITE: www.flightofthephoenix.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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