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The Lame Escape 

by Cole Smithey

This remake of Robert Aldrich's revered 1965 classic would be 15 percent better if not for its abysmal use of pop music, and 100 percent better if Aldrich's son William had never thought to ride on his father's coattails by producing it in the first place.

Dennis Quaid does an admirable job in the role that Jimmy Stewart played in the original film as Frank Towns, a cargo plane pilot on a mission to evacuate an oil rig staff in the middle of the Gobi desert. The film's expertly filmed plane crash sequence is an intense episode that sets a high watermark that the movie never again achieves as a group of survivors attempt to escape from their desert prison. Director John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines) falters in all areas of suspense and pacing with a dialogue-indigent script by Scott Frank (Minority Report) and Edward Burns (screenwriter on She's the One). Giovanni Ribisi does a lot with a little as Elliott, a nerdy airplane designer who insists that the survivors can construct a new aircraft from their broken airplane.

Dennis Quaid first attracted critical attention in 1979 with a smallish film called Breaking Away that became a box office success due to its charming and thoroughly believable story about rivalry between small town locals and encroaching college students in Bloomington, Ind. Quaid's earthy performance as a faded star quarterback resounded with a muscularity and depth of emotion that granted him entr & eacute;e into a stream of standard Hollywood fare with a few valuable surprises along the way (The Big Easy, Wyatt Earp, Far From Heaven).

There is a significant moment of power struggle in Flight of the Phoenix when Ribisi's repressed and insecure character demands that every survivor politely ask his permission to rebuild their wrecked airplane. Frank (Quaid) comes to the group meeting late, but adjusts his manner to bequeath Elliott his somewhat shameful wish. His face is so strong and intimidating that you start to imagine his possible words long before he speaks. There's body language at play, too, that utters ever-thickening subtext under Frank's admission that Elliott is indeed the "boss of everybody." The scene is significant because it operates on the minuscule changes in Quaid's face that exert a pure intentionality in commanding the scene.

The Flight of the Phoenix starts to crumble whenever it delves into montage sequences meant to speed along action that would be much better served if the audience was included in the process of watching the characters interact. The thrill of all escape movies (like The Great Escape) lies in observing the minute details of the daily rituals and struggle that lead up to the hoped-for moment of freedom. But the screenwriters here are more interested in glossing over the nitty-gritty details of the characters' effort to build a plane from scrap. Instead we get an insipid group dance montage to Outkast's interminably annoying "Hey Ya" that comes as a music video sequence stuck in the middle of what should be a nonstop suspense ride.

Dennis Quaid's stalwart performance as a hellcat pilot and natural leader of men doesn't rescue the movie from its unconvincing dialogue or flaccid plotting, but he does give the movie its dynamic character hook. He makes being stranded in the Gobi desert for two hours entertaining -- even if the movie isn't.

Publication date: 12/16/04

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