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'Phoenix' fails to rise above diversion

So let me get this straight: The plane carrying you and your recently laid-off oil rig co-workers has just crashed somewhere in the Gobi desert. There's barely any water and all there is to eat are canned peaches and hearts of palm. Your only credible shot at salvation is to rebuild a new plane from the workable parts of the old one.

There are sandstorms, electrical storms, marauding Mongols, a mounting deadline, and the annoying fact that each of you seems like an item on a checklist of character types. But in spite of all this, you have time to whip out an iPod, play OutKast's "Hey Ya!," dance the robot, and bang on pipes? Is this an action movie, or "Stomp"?

That's the kind of picture "Flight of the Phoenix" is: silly to the last drop of rationed water.

It may sound like the big-screen version of ABC's "Lost," but the movie is a remake of the tense Robert Aldrich drama from 1965, in which Jimmy Stewart gave one of his most underrated performances as the stern but compassionate leader of a pack of men stranded in the Sahara. The group included such thespians as Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, and, uh, Ernest Borgnine, and when they sniped at each other it was funny and a little scary. As a director, Aldrich was a master at using comedy to carve out interpersonal strife in the face of larger, sweatier crises.

The remake, however, looks almost campy when put next to its predecessor. (Aldrich's son William is one of the producers.) Dennis Quaid plays the Stewart part, and Tyrese Gibson (he's grown a surname -- and hair!) fills the Attenborough role. OK, fills might be an overstatement. He stands in Sir Richard's shoes and doesn't really move anywhere.

The new movie isn't really about acting, anyway. While having, say, Danny Glover in Gibson's part might have been more dramatically compelling, I'm guessing Gibson looks better hauling metal with his shirt off. Quaid's performance is even more physical: He puts the "ab" in 50 and fabulous.

His Frank Towns and Gibson's A.J. are surly Americans transporting a typically ragtag crew -- the growling hip-hopper (Sticky Fingaz); the pompous Brit (Hugh Laurie); the wise Arab (Kevork Malikyan); the Mexican cook (Jacob Vargas) -- from Mongolia to China, when a great, computer-generated storm almost literally dismantles their plane, sending it plowing into the desert.

A few people die in the crash, and the survivors, especially a scrappy Aussie and the lone dame (Miranda Otto), lean on macho Frank to be more comforting, more feeling, more like Jimmy Stewart. But he can't! He just can't, OK?

After much bickering, a mysterious member of the gang chimes in with the suggestion that they build another plane. He's a slight, platinum blonde named Elliott, and Giovanni Ribisi's sinister, bizarrely accented performance indicates what Peter Lorre might have been like had he joined the Third Reich. In the original, the character, played by the diabolically hammy Hardy Kruger, was a diva, a bully, and explicitly German. Elliott is from nowhere, but we get the point.

Ribisi and his tantrums stomp off with the movie, especially once the Major Plot Twist is revealed. But "Flight of the Phoenix," which John Moore ("Behind Enemy Lines") directed, shrugs away that little surprise. The movie fails to provide the element necessary to put all the nonsense over: conviction. Real drama is tossed away to ogle the shirtless, fatless male stars and to promote those feel-good snack breaks. We're stuck with a sporadically diverting thriller that has the personality of a Diet Coke ad.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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