In Flight of the Phoenix, Tyrese does not take his shirt off. Star Dennis Quaid, by contrast, takes his off for an extended scene, during which the camera shoots him from every admiring angle, especially low, to reveal his superbly worked-out, 50-year-old abs. Whether this choice has resulted from one or the other actor’s contract — Gibson wanting to keep his fabled torso covered, or Quaid wanting to show off his labor — it makes for the film’s only (mild) surprise.
Tepid and predictable, John Moore’s actionated remake of Robert Aldrich’s taut original never figures out its arguments or targets. The dilemma begins in the first frames, when Frank (Quaid) and A.J. (Tyrese) fly over the Gobi Desert, under Johnny Cash’s much-overexposed (via truck commercials) “I’ve Been Everywhere.” They’re arriving to pick up a crew working an unproductive Mongolian oil-rig. When the boss, tough chick Kelly (Miranda Otto), learns they’re essentially fired, she furiously spews unoriginal invective at the pilots: “This is bullshit!” At which point Frank only squints and lights a cigarette, as he informs her, “You screw up, you pay the price.” You can file that assessment under “words to eat later.”
Kelly’s pique soon makes her look naïve (she’s the girl here, after all), when she learns that she’s been sold out by the very suit in her midst, smug golf enthusiast Ian (Hugh Laurie). “These oil rigs,” sniffs A.J., “They attract the sorriest bunch of zeroes.” And within minutes, they’re all loaded into the cargo plane and zooming off into a monstrous sandstorm, where Frank’s serial decisions — to ride out, ride through, and then try to outrun the swirling winds — lead straight to disaster; even A.J. who-should-know-better cringes at this turn of events, sighing, “You’re the boss, Frank.” Instructed to “prepare” the passengers, A.J. advises them to fasten their seatbelts and oh yes, “If you believe in god, it’s time to call in a favor.” Their crash is portrayed with sensational vexing effects (see also: ABC’s Lost for milking airplane crashes for disturbing effect). They’re some 200 miles off course, without a radio and without even the beginning of a way out of the desert. Where’s Vin Diesel when you need him?
As they argue over water, rations, and what to do, what to do, they also begin to bond, of course, especially when one lunatic marches off into the desert by himself, forcing the already-feeling-guilty Frank to traipse out after him, grumbling about his irrational passengers. By the time this kid hits him with a “hopes and dreams” speech (in other words, he’s not wanting to sit around and wait for help that’s probably not coming and insisting that they undertake a ridiculous plan to rebuild the plane from the half left in working order), Frank can hold out no longer. He agrees to rebuild the plane, if only to stop the “hopes and dreams” speech. That, and they’ve also found a briefly noted comrade’s body (he fell out of the plane during the crash-landing), apparently used for target practice by the next big danger in store for the diverse crew: Mongolian bandits.
Knowing they have a couple of related deadlines now — dying of thirst or starvation in the desert, being shot by those ominous bandits who appear repeatedly, masked and looming shadows on the dunes — the crew begins working in earnest, more or less under the instruction of a fellow who’s just happened on the oil rig a few weeks before, the insufferable Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi). He appears to have some engineering background, so they tolerate his arrogance to get the job done. The team comprises a pedestrian assortment, right out of Post-9/11 Casting 101: sweet-natured cook Sammi (Jacob Vargas), skeptical Jeremy (charismatic Sticky Fingaz, here going by Kirk Jones and wearing an eye patch), a couple of white guys (including an angry, redheaded Irishman [Tony Curran]), and a Saudi named Rady (Kevork Malikyan). As he’s always ready to offer up pithy observations (“I take time to thank God for everything”), Rady’s primary function appears to be reminding the other team members — say, A.J. — of their spiritual obligations.
Much like Moore’s previous film (Behind Enemy Lines), Flight of the Phoenix splices together World War II and current action movie clichés and rhythms. Here the motley crew comes to mutual respect, engages in thrilling encounters with menacing villains, and participates in music montages that fill time in lieu of plot (especially egregious: a welding-and-dancing jamboree set to André 3000’s “Hey Ya!”). Formula dictates that everyone who doesn’t die learns a proper moral lesson and they pull together to ensure their self-appointed mission’s success. Most remarkably, after what looks like weeks in the desert sun, no one ever gets a sunburn.