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'Flight of the Phoenix' rises from ashes of hokey premise

From the first frame of its trailer, Flight of the Phoenix had all the makings of a tough sell. Not only did a remake of the 1965 Jimmy Stewart vehicle seem as necessary as a frame-by-frame colorized retelling of Hitchcock's Psycho, it actually stars not one, but two former rappers in supporting roles (Tyrese Gibson and ex-Onyx member Sticky Fingaz). As if that alone doesn't make it the stuff of eminent disaster, it's being released during the holiday film season, when the idea of sitting through a full length feature about the reconstruction of an aircraft may seem as thrilling as rocking in the New Year with Regis Philbin.

With that said, it is truly surprising that Phoenix turns out to be as shamelessly entertaining as it is. While not without its share of flaws, it exceeds most expectations, even if it's only because it rises far above its anticipated heinousness. Its merit lies in its well-executed action and rapid-clip tension. It is the film's highest achievement that it manages to keep the suspense up for as long as it does. While we're not talking breakneck excitement here (more like a mild whiplash), Phoenix builds momentum at a steady and enjoyable pace.

The emphasis is on action right from the get-go. This is probably for the best, since the extent of character development is reduced to assigning cheap stereotypes to each actor. After a brief set-up that sees ace pilot Capt. Frank Towns (Dennis Quaid) and sidekick A.J. (Tyrese) sent into Mongolia to fly a team of oil workers back home from an abandoned government project, their aircraft is overtaken by raging sandstorms, causing them to crash land in the middle of the Mongolian desert, thousands of miles from civilization. As the remaining human cargo wade through the wreckage, the post-euphoric high they feel from surviving the violent accident is quickly replaced by the fear of dehydration and doubts of being rescued. Inexplicably, while shaken and discouraged, they still find the inner strength to have a dance party to the tune of Outkast's "Hey Ya."

With enough charisma between them to rival the New Gilligan's Island ensemble, this by-the-numbers bag consists of a headstrong tomboy (Miranda Otto), a steely Australian (Tony Curran), a superstitious lunkhead (Scott Michael Campbell), a country bumpkin (Bob Brown), an uptight yuppie (Hugh Laurie), a spiritualist (Kevork Malikyan), a volatile muscleman (Sticky Fingaz), a token Mexican cook (Jacob Vargas) and the wild card, a mysterious eccentric whose secret will either save or doom them all (Giovanni Ribisi).

Naturally, there are personality clashes in the beginning, but fending off starvation, battling skin-stripping sandstorms and fighting off nomad Mongolian smugglers is a good way to bring about unity and bonding between those with differences. The one-thing-after-another formula usually applied in the action/adventure genre is used effectively here, even if the Mongolian nomad subplot is pretty silly. The main source of conflict comes courtesy of the power struggle between Capt. Towns, the reluctant leader-by-default who is skeptical the plane will ever get off the ground and Elliot, the narcissistic idiot savant/airplane designer who is confident it will.

At this point in his career, Dennis Quaid can play the surly hero-type in his sleep and as the Phoenix's rugged captain, he is once again injected into this familiar vein. Ribisi, a talented actor in serious jeopardy of typecasting himself, plays Elliot as if he were an A.D.D.-addled man-child. Making the most out of the little they have to work with, Gibson and Otto emerge as the most charismatic screen presences Phoenix has to offer. While the dialogue (largely supplied by writer/actor Edward Burns) isn't sharp or compelling enough to secure a spot in anyone's movie quote collection, it's pretty competent for a big, dumb exercise in blockbuster filmmaking.

To director John Moore and cinematographer Brendan Galvin's credit, they take full advantage of shooting on location in Africa and Namibia and its awe-inspiring backdrops. Moore deserves extra praise for his orchestration of the crash scene, which is disturbingly realistic and downright unnerving. From metal-shearing projectiles tearing through the sides of the aircraft to the obligatory passenger being sucked from his seat and hurtled toward oblivion, this cinematic crash can take its place next to classic scenes found in such films as Cast Away and Alive. Moore, an Irish-born import whose most noteworthy film was 2001's Behind Enemy Lines, does an admirable job of ensuring this Phoenix rises from the ashes of a hokey premise and rock-bottom expectations.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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