When a Mongolian oil team (including Hugh Laurie, Miranda Otto, and Jared Padalecki) gets the call that their jobs have been terminated, a company pilot, Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid), and his crew (Tyrese Gibson), are brought in to take everybody back home. Eager to arrive at their destination, Frank decides to fly through a Gobi sandstorm to avoid turning back and wasting time, and soon the plane crashes into the desert. Left with minimal supplies, rapidly dropping morale, and surrounded by armed smugglers, the crew finds hope in a mysterious, antagonistic passenger (Giovanni Ribisi) who urges the group to salvage the plane, rebuild it, and fly home.
As a tale of survival and hope, “Flight of the Phoenix” is a rare breed. It joins the small group of films in which the audience may actually wish that the characters do not achieve their goal: to live. “Phoenix” doesn’t have many excuses for its incompetence, as the film is based not only from a novel, but also a 1965 motion picture which starred Jimmy Stewart. At least “Phoenix” had enough carpet laid out for it to follow a nice clear path to a semi-entertaining desert adventure; however, once the action hits the sandy dunes, the film rolls over and dies instantly.
“Phoenix” was helmed by John Moore, who was last seen creating a 2001 torture device called “Behind Enemy Lines.” Moore’s background is in commercials, and his films have demonstrated that he isn’t interested in challenging himself beyond the realm of the 30-second spot. “Phoenix” is constructed like a series of cell phone ads, with Moore getting carried away with his special effects, montages, and use of obscenely overexposed music to underscore, or in many cases overwhelm, the screenplay. The craftsmanship is perfectly in place around the film, from the splendid sun-drenched photography by Brendan Galvin to the spare desert production design, but everything that moves within the frame is oddly brain dead. Especially the characters, who are separated into tedious stereotypes (youth = stupidity, Latino = religious, corporate drone = suit, tie and palm pilot), and given lengthy life affirming speech after speech to spit out because, simply, this story doesn’t have enough juice to take it past 60 minutes. What else would fill up that timer Moore doesn’t offer any support, blindly going along shooting a terrible script, and attempting to liven up the action and planning sequences with annoying PS2 style. He’s wasting his time and ours.
The only real element keeping “Phoenix” from dying of thirst are the occasional juicy performances. Sure, the film does feature expected non-starters like rapper Sticky Fingaz in a supporting role, but leads Dennis Quaid and Giovanni Ribisi sidestep Moore’s dreadful control and deliver what’s expected and needed, and for Ribisi, something a little stranger. Delighting in playing a complete jerk, Ribisi brings a spark to the picture and draws attention to the screen and the gut reaction to such a repellant character is to wish for his demise. However, his death would mean the loss of the only thing keeping the film interesting, leaving the film with an uneasiness that wasn’t intentional, but truly is the only element that keeps “Phoenix” from complete disaster.Rating: D