Though 1965's original The Flight Of The Phoenix featured a top-flight cast (Jimmy Stewart, Ernest Borgnine, and Richard Attenborough, among others), plus first-rate director Robert Aldrich, the premise is clearly B-movie material, ripe for a quick-and-dirty 80 minutes starring no-name, second-rate character actors. Unfortunately, studios don't bother financing double-feature undercards like that any more, but the new remake comes tantalizingly close, with Dennis Quaid leading a motley bunch of journeymen through frugally budgeted sandstorms and thieving Mongolian nomads. With a high-concept hook this irresistible—stranded crash survivors rebuilding their plane in the middle of the desert—simplicity and momentum are essential, and the film succeeds so long as it keeps its head down and starts welding. Unfortunately, the distractions are worth about half an hour in precious run time, just enough baggage to make a lean story seem a bit too flabby.
In the Han Solo role, Quaid plays a cynical cargo pilot who becomes a reluctant hero when a sandstorm plunges his plane into the Gobi Desert, hundreds of miles from civilization. The survivors include Quaid's co-pilot (Tyrese Gibson) and about a dozen oil riggers led by Miranda Otto. Though they have enough water and canned peaches to last 30 days, the chances of rescue units locating them are slim to none, and the extreme desert heat keeps even the fittest survivors from searching for help. Their only hope rests with Giovanni Ribisi, a mysterious, arrogant young engineer who believes he can rebuild the damaged plane out of available parts, but the plan risks accelerating the drain on their dwindling rations.
With his bleached-blond hair, implacable European accent, and nerdy devotion to cool rationality, Ribisi acts like a cross between a young Reich officer and the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, and his unashamed hamminess steals the movie. Next to the standard-issue grunts on board, with their dull braggadocio and talk of families back home, Ribisi's arch, tongue-curled line-readings give Flight Of The Phoenix its only flecks of inspiration and personality. A better movie might have stuck more closely with his specific blueprints for jerry-rigging the plane—the finished model seems to have been constructed from welded pipe-fittings and bubble-gum—but the film gets bogged down in needless subplots and action beats. The filmmakers seem so worried about boring the audience that they'll contrive anything for a cheap jolt, including electrical storms that pound the metal aircraft and shadowy nomads toting machine guns. If only Tattoo from Fantasy Island had directed, "da plane" might have gotten the focus it deserved.