Flight of the Phoenix (December 15/04)
Emerging several months after Lost has been on the air, Flight of the Phoenix can't help but look inferior by comparison. It certainly doesn't help that both the film and television show share a lot of similarities, starting with a premise that's virtually identical (a plane goes down in the middle of nowhere, and a group of disparate survivors must learn to cope). Lost does, of course, have the advantage of taking its time in allowing the story to unfold - something that Flight of the Phoenix must accomplish within two hours. And though the film's outcome isn't terribly difficult to predict (just look at the title), Flight of the Phoenix is nevertheless a solid, engaging little drama.
Dennis Quaid stars as Frank Towns, a grizzled cargo plane captain whose latest job involves flying the recently sacked crew of an oil rig back home. Despite some seriously adverse flying conditions, Frank presses on - resulting in a catastrophic crash that leaves the survivors stranded in the desert. Though Frank would rather wait to be rescued, a mysterious passenger named Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi) insists that he has the know-how required to fix the aircraft. Frank eventually agrees, and the remainder of the film follows the various characters' efforts at literally getting the plane off the ground.
That Flight of the Phoenix contains such a predictable storyline and stereotypical characters comes as something of a surprise, given that the screenplay's been written by Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Minority Report) and actor/director Ed Burns (though he doesn't appear in the film). The film's structure becomes evident fairly quickly - 15-20 minutes of dialogue followed by some sort of an action sequence (ie an electrical storm or an encounter with some nomads) - and the majority of these characters aren't developed beyond their outward appearances. As a result, the film is peppered with stock clichés (such as a quick-tempered Irishman and a sage-like Arab), while the more recognizable faces in the cast are essentially playing off their established personas.
Yet it's hard not to get wrapped up in this relatively simple story. Director John Moore effectively keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, punching up talkier sequences with unusual stylistic choices that aren't entirely necessary. But what really elevates Flight of the Phoenix above the level of mediocrity are the performances, particularly Quaid's expectedly charismatic turn as the film's reluctant hero. But the supporting cast deserves some mention also, with Hugh Laurie (as a company man who initially distrusts everyone) and Miranda Otto obvious standouts. And then there's Ribisi, offering up a bizarre performance that seems to have been inspired by Anthony Hopkins' take on Hannibal Lecter. It's really strange and even a little bit out of place, but Ribisi makes it work.
Flight of the Phoenix is the perfect antidote to the many overlong, Oscar baiting films that are currently flooding the multiplexes; as a piece of pure escapist entertainment, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable way to spend two hours.