Flight of the Phoenix (review)

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Desert Sturm und Drang

Flight of the Phoenix opens with this big old ugly-beautiful C-119 cargo plane flying over the desolate-beautiful Gobi Desert, swooping and soaring and, frankly, showing off in its magnificent defiance of the harsh world below. And blasting on the soundtrack, while the titles flash, is Johnny Cash’s weary-exuberant anthem “I’ve Been Everywhere.” The combined effect is hauntingly memorable — I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, can’t get the song out of my head — half audacious arrogance, half genuine love of traveling the world and seeing what there is to see out there.
That seemingly contradictory attitude — jaded and thrilled, cynical and expansive — infects the entire film, becomes the unspoken undertone of Phoenix, mitigating its inherent absurdity, leavening it with an emotional authenticity that won’t let you forget it: “Mother Nature may be a nasty bitch and we only little monkeys,” no one says to anyone else here, but they could have, “but we’re smart monkeys, dammit, and she is not gonna get the best of us.” That may not be the wisest or most prudent sensibility with which to approach life in the wild, but it’s a real one. And it transforms what could have been just another throwaway action-adventure flick into a real riproarer, bristling with adventure and nail-biting suspense — because it’s all happening to what feels like actual people, not mere placeholders for a mechanical plot.

That’s really necessary, because there’s plenty of preposterousness to go around that needed to be relieved somehow. And it’s more than just the typical mystery surrounding the decision to remake — unnecessarily, perhaps — a beloved classic, the 1965 film of the same name. (I haven’t seen the original, though I chucked it right onto my Netflix queue and can’t wait to devour it, so I obviously could not get caught up in comparing the two films.) C’mon: What are the chances that when that big ol’ C-119 later crashes into the godforsaken ass end of the Gobi, amongst the load of oil-rig-worker passengers is a mysterious hitchhiker who just happened to stumble into their Mongolian oil-drilling proving grounds just before they were shut down and evacuated and that this guy just happens to be an airplane designer? And what are the odds that on the C-119, among the equipment salvaged from the oil rig and not damaged or lost in the crash, there just happens to be welding equipment, gas generators, and Craftsman tools, just what’s needed to, say, build a new plane from the wreckage and fly the hell out of there?

But you know what? None of it feels like the oh-so-convenient movie-arranged crap that it sounds like, at least not while you’re watching the movie. (Well, there is one bit, right toward the end of the film, that made me say, Hey, why the hell did those people wait till now to do what they were gonna do all along when it would have made more sense to do it earlier? But this is a minor complaint.) It feels like these people would have made do with whatever they’d found themselves with — they weren’t lucky, they were MacGyver, making their own luck.

Director John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines) knows what makes a movie too popcorny good to be dismissed, and part of that is casting, which is spot-on perfect here. We get, without it ever being explicitly stated, that if anyone was gonna crash into the middle of nowhere and plan their own rescue, these are the people who could do it. Dennis Quaid (The Day After Tomorrow, The Alamo) deploys his usual brazen charm as hotshot pilot Frank Towns; if he’s a cocky enough bastard to fly his plane right into the mother of all sandstorms and still get the plane on the ground relatively intact and with almost everyone still alive after that decision turns out to be a really bad one, then he’s a cocky enough bastard to agree to fly an experimental plane jury-rigged from junk and spit and sweat by people who are exhausted, thirsty, hungry, sunburned, and on the edge of going mad. (That crash, by the way, is awesomely horrific and seems to go on forever — this ain’t never gonna be your in-flight movie today.) Frank needs some convincing, of course, cuz the guy who suggests the let’s-build-a-plane plan, Giovanni Ribisi’s (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Lost in Translation) Elliott, is apparently joonbug-loony, except who else but someone like that is gonna offer such a suggestion in the first place? Ribisi, who’s generally desperately underappreciated, is superbly funny-scary in a role that requires him to be both a villain and a hero. And keeping the survivors together is Miranda Otto’s (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Human Nature) Kelly, the oil rig’s head roustabout, and the simple fact that she succeeds so swimmingly in a rough, dirty, masculine job that her all-male crew has nothing but respect for her — which is portrayed here in an entirely convincing manner — says all we need to know about her toughness.

None of these are people who give up easily, so that, yeah, there is absorbing adventure and engaging excitement in disaster and their triumph over it. Absurd as that may be, it makes for a wonderfully gripping movie.

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