Phoenix (1995): Sci-Fi Stew

Hark! The two star time-killer klaxon is a-sounding! Matty whiles away an hour or so with a serviceable lil’ stockpile.

Beginning as a session musician before moving into music video production in the mid 1980s, Jimmy Lifton transitioned to features at the start of the ‘90s, his biggest claims to DTV fame being the four-strong Mirror Mirror series and the quartet of films he produced in conjunction with Jordan ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ Belfort and Hit Entertainment: The Secret Agent Club (1996), Blood Money (1996), Firestorm (1997), and the ‘Die Hard (1988) in space’ romp, Assault on Dome 4 (1996). Just prior to Assault on Dome 4, though, Lifton had tread similar terrain with PHOENIX: a tepid but agreeable time-killer that added robots to its orbital, McTiernan-indebted hijinks.

The second of three films made at Lifton’s short-lived shingle Triad Studios (the others were Final Equinox (1995) and Mirror Mirror 3: The Voyeur (1995)), Phoenix tells the story of the suspiciously familiar-sounding Tyler McClain (soap supremo Stephen Nichols). A disgraced grunt, McClain is released from jail and sent on a covert mission to a remote mining colony to help thwart an android coup orchestrated by Blade Runner’s (1982) William Sanderson. Cue much ducking, diving, shooting, and a smattering of early PlayStation-style CGI. 

From the aforementioned Die Hard and Blade Runner, to Escape From New York (1981), RoboCop (1987), and, even, The Dirty Dozen (1967), Lifton and co-scribe/director Troy Cook’s script is a shamelessly derivative patchwork of better movies and scenes. But, you know, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best and Phoenix is modest fun in a ‘spot which bit comes from where’ kind of way. Further still, it’s a trait that carries over to the film’s casting which, beyond its principals, offers a veritable stew of ‘where have I seen them before?’ moments (the answers are, in order: he plays Ving Rhames’ burglar mate in The People Under the Stairs (1991); she’s in the Subspecies sequels; and he’s the guy forced to wear the spiky strap-on in Se7en (1995)). Kudos as well to Lifton and Cook’s decision to have Sanderson, Brad Dourif, and Billy Drago play (relatively) against type. Having worked with Lifton on the first two Mirror Mirrors, Sanderson’s hangdog expression and dad-bod are far removed from the Herculean tin-men popularised by Arnie and his straight-to-tape kin a la Olivier Gruner and Frank Zagarino; the weaselly Dourif is literally the last person you’d expect to be a tough army guy; and Drago has a ball as a whispering, sharp-dressed exec motivated solely by greed, as opposed to his usual strain of general psychopathy (Lifton clearly saw something in Drago others didn’t: he’d go on to cast the ever-excellent perma-baddie as — egad! — the romantic lead in the third Mirror Mirror).

Tech credentials are good. Production designer James Scanlon does an especially impressive job building a futuristic world with little more than a few flashing lights and a Los Angeles warehouse’s floor plan. Momentum takes a dip at the midpoint, but, by and large, Cook demonstrates a decent understanding of how to shape a scene and unleashes a couple of nice visuals (a camera op and grip by trade, Cook had previously photographed the slick-looking Mirror Mirror 2: Raven’s Dance (1994) and, judging by the very obvious pseudonym in the credits, probably lensed Phoenix in addition to calling the shots).

Phoenix was picked up for domestic distribution by Monarch Home Video and hit U.S. video stores on 30th October 1995. Here in the U.K. it landed on cassette via Guild Home Video in early 1996 and did sturdy enough business to warrant Guild acquiring an otherwise unrelated flick about cyborgs, Fred Olen Ray’s Cyberzone (1995), to release as ‘Phoenix II’ the next year.

USA ● 1995 ● Sci-Fi, Action ● 87mins

Stephen Nichols, Brad Dourif, Billy Drago, and William Sanderson ● Dir. Troy Cook ● Wri. Jimmy Lifton, Troy Cook

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