Sometimes lowered (or nonexistent) expectations end up being rewarded. Case in point: there’s a movie in theaters now that many may never even consider seeing amidst all the Oscar bait choices floating around. But those seeking respite from grim, eat-it-it’s-good-for-you options are likely to find the pop pleasures of the new remake of Flight of the Phoenix amply satisfying.
Dennis Quaid takes on the Jimmy Stewart role as the pilot of an ill-fated plane that crashes in the middle of the Gobi desert while carrying a group of oil riggers, and one insinuatingly creepy last-minute additional passenger, and he fuses his particular brand of charm and rugged intensity to the pilot’s arrogance and reticence over taking on the role of leader of these desperate survivors. He, and the entire cast, is aided enormously by director John Moore’s resistance to the kind of Bruckheimerian traps into which he could have easily fallen; there are no Con Air-esque histrionics on display here, from the performers or the director. Moore’s visual style is pleasingly fluid, energetic without being overbearing, and charged with exactly the right kind of gravity to effectively propel this kind of suspense film, and he largely resists the temptation to overedit his action set pieces into geographical incoherence. He also knows the value of the eerie quiet of the vast, engulfing environment into which the characters are dropped, set against the way the danger can suddenly and perilously loom, like the twisting, swirling bloom of a freak sandstorm, or the fear in a man’s soul as he tries to decide whether taking action will serve to save himself and the others or only deplete energy and supplies enough to bring them all one day closer to death.
The movie plays nimbly with this kind of popcorn existential drama, and the cast of typically underused actors—including Miranda Otto, Hugh Laurie, Tony Curran, Tyrese Gibson and Scott Michael Campbell—all get opportunities to stand out in ways that aren’t often afforded members of other supporting casts that are more generically conceived. All these folks are terrific, but the stand-out, and I can hardly believe I’m saying this, is Giovanni Ribisi, in the Hardy Kruger role, the reptilian, unaccountably hostile tag-along passenger who may, or may not, hold the key to the group’s survival (my wife has even requested immediate execution for the suggestion that Ribisi’s performance is, in her estimation, one of the year’s best).
This prickly oddball, an aircraft designer who suggests the possibility of constructing a new plane out of the wreckage of the old one, holds back revealing his knowledge partly out of fear and antisocial paralysis, but also, as we become increasingly aware, because he digs the power it gives him over his fellow survivors. Yet he also wants, on some infantile level, just to fit in, and the actor’s instincts to highlight the character’s off-putting eccentricities work, for once, to emphasize the warring impulses raging within that bleached-blonde egghead. In movie after movie Ribisi has indulged in his strange attraction to these kinds of tic-ridden, vaguely repellent social misfits, and his ghastly and grotesquely miscalculated work as a mentally retarded man who falls in love with the similarly impaired Juliette Lewis in Garry Marshall’s brain-dead dramedy The Other Sister made me hope never to see him on screen again. But here he’s discovered the joys of modulation, and his big moments aren’t so flailing and lopsided as to make you wish he’d just spin off inside his own skull and stay there.
By the time Ribisi is offered a handshake of reconciliation from Quaid’s captain, with whom he’s had, shall we say, a testy relationship, and returns the gesture with the unexpected intimacy of two hands enveloping Quaid’s one, you feel the intelligence of the director’s concept of the movie as a whole, where a solitary shot of a corpse half-buried in a dune has as much power as a thundering electrical storm, jelling and finding safe harbor in this heretofore none-too-subtle actor’s quiet actions. The whole movie locates and executes its primal pop power in the same effortlessly muscular way: it delivers on its promise and barely breaks a sweat.
My only complaint: the hackneyed use of incidental pop tunes on the movie’s soundtrack. Things begin promisingly enough. An opening credit sequence that follows the doomed plane as it soars over the seductive dunes of the Gobi is matched to Johnny Cash’s hit “I’ve Been Everywhere.” As Cash runs down the roster of all the places he’s visited, the specter of the movie’s disaster is cleverly suggested in the song’s lyrics when the singer casually drops a hint that the reason for his extensive worldwide mobility may be that he’s a serial killer on the run from the law. But no sooner than the oil crew gets on board for their aborted trip home, the soundtrack kicks in with songs made exhausted from overuse, such as James Brown’s “Night Train” and, most egregiously, “Gimme Some Lovin’” by the Spencer Davis Group, featuring Steve Winwood’s agonizingly strained vocals. These tunes don’t comment on the action meaningfully, the way “I’ve Been Everywhere” does; they’re just demographic sops intended to goose the movie in an incongruously feel-good direction. In much the same way, a misconceived sequence of the crew merrily (!!) working on the new plane in the sweltering sun while dancing to Outkast’s “Hey Ya” should have been cut altogether. And the use of a Massive Attack song, to the exclusion of the movie’s very effective score, during an excruciatingly intense encounter with possibly murderous desert smugglers nearly cripples the scene. But it’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” that stands as the biggest offender. I’d love to track how often this song has been used by filmmakers to paper over emotional and narrative holes they’re too lazy to fix themselves, and I’d also like to seriously suggest a moratorium on its further use (and while we’re at it, how about ignoring the back catalog of Diana Ross and the Supremes for a few decades as well?) Giovanni Ribisi is one thing, but I never want to hear “Gimme Some Lovin’” ever again.