There was a time when I thought Dennis Quaid had something. I believe it was 2003. That was the year he turned in a fun performance in The Rookie, and an ignored yet award worthy turn in the much riskier film Far From Heaven as a gay husband dumping his wife for man-love in the fifties. Before that, he’s always delivered in solid, if not necessarily financially successful work. Frequency is something of a borderline cult classic, and though I may be in the minority on it, I love the heck out of movies like Dragonheart and Innerspace. Did you see him as Jerry Lee Lewis? Brilliant. In short, Dennis Quaid has always seemed like a damn fine actor. His Achilles heel is that he’s predictably inconsistent. To date, he’s already turned in one of the worst performances of the year in one of the worst movies of the year, The Day After Tomorrow. Now he’s repeating that blunder by stinking even worse in a cobbled together remake of an old Jimmy Stuart picture. Flight of the Phoenix is not a good movie, but no matter how bad it gets, Dennis Quaid’s acting proves worse.
In Flight of the Phoenix Quaid plays Frank Towns, an airplane pilot who shows up at a Mongolian oil rig to shut it down. The rig’s staff reluctantly loads his plane with the most valuable components of their equipment, and then boards themselves to take Towns’ flight across the Gobi Desert to be summarily dismissed. In mid-flight Towns hits a horrendous sand storm that he can’t climb over. One of his engines explodes and the plane plummets from the sky in another one of those spectacularly fun Hollywood crash sequences. Most of the passengers survive, only to find themselves stranded in the middle of one of the world’s harshest deserts. The nearest town is 200 miles away; they have enough water for 30 days, and absolutely no hope of rescue. They also have an airplane designer. His name is Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi), and with their hope of continued existence fading, he convinces them that the only way to save themselves is to build and entirely new airplane out of the wreckage of the old one.
In the process of getting around to building it, we have to sit through a lot of terrible, stilted, cliché dialogue, much of it blathered out by an incredibly disinterested Dennis Quaid. The movie is filled with ridiculous speeches about hope and dreams, so full in fact that even Towns at one point remarks, “As long as I don’t have to hear the hope speech again”. The movie’s dialogue is so lame that its own characters seem a little embarrassed by it.
When they’re not talking and instead simply laboring, Flight of the Phoenix actually works. What carries it is the concept, which on its own is an interesting one. Strangers working together to accomplish something completely bizarre and impossible with the very forces of nature against them and their lives hanging in the balance… that’s good drama. I had fun watching the crew struggle to make Elliott’s crazy idea come to fruition, and Ribisi does his best to save the film by turning in a fantastically weird, wormy, suspicious performance as the blonde-haired, mentally disturbed airplane designer.
While both the concept and Ribisi are good, the movie is poorly executed. The soundtrack is horrifying, filled with out of place pop songs and overused, stock movie tracks played at maximum volume to blare out through the screen and assault your head. The film could have benefited from a nice orchestral score, but instead settles on Outkast. The screenplay is rife with awkwardness and bizarre behavior. It’s filled with bad, cringe-worthy conversations and idiotic characters who lay out in the sun complaining about the heat when there’s perfectly good shade two feet behind them. As a director, John Moore seems under-talented, with much of the film consisting of stock close-ups and groups scenes shot to look like the actors performing them weren’t even on the same set together when they were filmed. And of course there’s also the aforementioned disinterested Quaid, who mugs so painfully that a few times I had to turn away in embarrassment for him. The rest of the cast is completely wasted. Tyrese seems like he might have done something charismatic if he’d had a decent line or two, and Miranda Otto is there only as a token female.
The end of the film is a mundane let down, resorting to snapshots in the credits set to cheery music to tell us where they all ended up. Much of the rest of it is just flat out shoddy, and a waste when you consider that this is a remake of a pretty nice old film. But the concept is so good and Ribisi so sharp that in spite of how horrendously flawed the movie is, I had a little bit of fun with it. Flight of the Phoenix is cheap and half-assed, but not a completely torturous experience.