'Phoenix' Rises to the Occasion
Friday, December 17, 2004
UNLIKE THE SURVIVING passengers and crew of the downed C-119 military cargo plane that serves as the centerpiece and main set of "Flight of the Phoenix," I could have died a happy death after the film's first 15 minutes. The horrific crash and the storm that precipitates it are so visceral, so satisfyingly scary and so well filmed that I felt I had gotten my money's worth before the bulk of the movie had even begun. Okay, I didn't actually pay for the screening, but if I had, it would have been worth it. Even factoring in the cost of a jumbo-size popcorn.
Make no mistake: This is high-carb filmmaking at its finest. When it's all over, you'll have a knot in your stomach, but it'll be from the taut, stirring adventure as much as from all the junk food you ate. Trust me, you'll sweat off all the calories anyway.
Based on the novel by Elleston Trevor, which also inspired a rather good 1965 film starring Jimmy Stewart, "Phoenix" is the story of a group of people who, when their aircraft crash-lands in the Gobi desert, decide to rebuild it from the wreckage. Far-fetched? Sure. As luck and the script would have it, one of the passengers (Giovanni Ribisi) is even an aircraft designer. What are the odds? But if you don't have that, you don't have a movie, now do you? What are you going to do? Watch a bunch of plucky but determined amateurs put a complex piece of high technology back together with spit and duct tape?
Fortunately, this is not the kind of movie that dwells on how the doggone thing gets built. Other than Ribisi's character, a bleached-blond egghead who approaches but never crosses the line into caricature, there's no deus ex machina here either. And no one, thank God, is called upon to come up with a jury-rigged piece of hardware from his or her back pocket that just happens to fit a hole in the engine.
The film, like the plane, works not because of technology, but elbow grease -- courtesy of the fine, and largely un-star-studded cast, whose characters -- and character flaws -- come vividly to the fore as they battle sand, wind and electrical storms, marauding smugglers, despair, heat and one another. Yes, there are a couple of "types" here, but the cast quickly convinces you that they're real people, too.
Dennis Quaid as the cocky, cynical captain; Hugh Laurie as the stuck-up oil-company "suit" whose staff is being evacuated from a dry well; Miranda Otto as the conciliatory peacemaker -- these three come closest to stereotypes, but the script by Scott Frank ("Minority Report," "Out of Sight") and jack-of-all-trades Edward Burns goes out of its way to flesh out their personalities. Rounding out the fine ensemble are Tyrese Gibson, Tony Curran, Kirk Jones, Jacob Vargas, Kevork Malikyan, Scott Michael Campbell and Jared Padalecki.
I know, but that's the good thing about "Phoenix." The only egos you'll see on screen are those of the characters, not the actors, which leaves plenty of room for some soaring thrills and genuine chills in this only-temporarily-earthbound adventure.