You know it the moment Dennis Quaid and Tyrese Gibson appear onscreen as a tough-guy pilot and his equally tough partner, barking orders at everyone and referring to the men they have to transport as "you girls."
Yep, it's cliche city, and Flight of the Phoenix plays to roughly a dozen of them - equal, curiously enough, to the number of people who end up on the plane. Beginning with the expendable guy who's only around long enough to die first, continuing through the wacky cook and encompassing the lone woman (Miranda Otto) who's beautiful and tough as nails, there's not a character in this movie we haven't seen a dozen times before. And given that the script from Scott Frank and Edward Burns steadfastly avoids anything that might resemble character development, that's a serious problem.
Quaid, whose locked-in scowl is rarely offscreen for long, is Frank Towns, a pilot sent out to the middle of the Gobi Desert to retrieve an oil-drilling crew. Recklessly anxious to get home, he pauses nary a second when a nasty sandstorm appears, opting to fly through it. Of course the plane crashes in the middle of the desert, and of course the situation appears desperate. But then, unexpectedly, from their midst arises Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), a high-voiced, bespectacled savior of mysterious origins who just happens to be an airplane designer, and there's just enough parts left from their crashed C-119 cargo plane to construct a new aircraft and fly on to safety.
Not that it will be simple. First, they're in the Gobi in the middle of July with little food or water. Nomadic thieves roam nearby, scouring the desert in search of expensive watches to trade. Worst of all, the 11 surviving passengers and crew have to get along - especially difficult when Towns proves reluctant to share authority and Elliott develops a first-class Napoleonic complex, one that demands absolute fealty.
The action is thrilling enough, the crash is filmed with great energy and excitement, and there's an undeniable sense of triumph when everyone's work seems about to (literally) take flight.
There are times when Flight of the Phoenix - a remake of Robert Aldrich's 1965 film of the same name - rises above its limitations; most of them have to do with the photography. Brendan Galvin's cinematography makes the desert a character itself (and develops it in ways the human characters could only wish for), while David B. Nowell's aerial photography is truly spectacular, so much so that the two cameramen get equal billing. It would be nice if the film warranted such a breathtaking sheen.
SUN SCORE 2 1/2 stars (**1/2)
Flight of the Phoenix
Starring Dennis Quaid, Miranda Otto, Giovanni Ribisi
Directed by John Moore
Released by 20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 (some language, action and violence)
Time 112 minutes