Directed by Breck Eisner. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Penélope Cruz, Steve Zahn, William H. Macy, Lambert Wilson, Delroy Lindo. (2005, PG-13, 124 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 8, 2005
Based on the popular Clive Cussler book, Sahara may be asinine, but it’s also goofy good fun, a presummer popcorn actioner that strips away Cussler’s veneer of rank conservatism and Boys’ Own shenanigans in favor of Seventies-era classic rock (you know you’re in the presence of goofiness when Steppenwolf’s schlocky "Magic Carpet Ride" soundtracks a key scene) and hamfisted buddy-movie clichés. The film also, near notoriously, casts Austin percussion legend McConaughey as Dirk Pitt, the novelist’s Yankified James Bond-lite, a strapping, bronzed American archeologist who works for a redundantly acronymed outfit called NUMA (the National Underwater and Marine Agency) when he’s not off chasing the ladies. Cussler, apparently, was none too pleased with the choice and has since been embroiled in a legal scuffle with Paramount regarding the direction this planned trilogy should take. Relax, Clive, your fan base is secure, even though with McConaughey and Zahn – as Pitt’s wisecracking right-hand-man Al Giordino – in the leads this might as well have been rechristened Romancing the Stoned. The plot has Pitt searching for a fabled Confederate iron-clad ship that vanished with all hands and a gutful of CSA gold. Through a series of events too circuitous to recount here, Pitt and Giordino find themselves in darkest Africa, where they team up with WHO field researcher Eva Rojas (Cruz), who is hot on the trail of a deadly contagion that could, if left unchecked, cross the Atlantic and obliterate McDonald’s supply of whitefish filets in record time. With an able assist from crusty sea-salt Admiral Sandecker (Macy in a truly bizarre bit of casting), Pitt and Company not only save the whales but the world as well, and if that comes as a surprise, you haven’t been getting out to many movies lately. Backhanded compliments aside, Sahara is generally quite fun, an updated version of the grandly scatterbrained old Republic serials that plateaus before it manages anything approaching Indiana Jones’ rugged charm. McConaughey, miscast though Cussler may believe him to be, is fine in a (presumably unintentional) parodic sort of way; his roiling abs and easy, raffish grin suit director Eisner’s cheesily gung-ho vibe, and though it’ll likely torment Cussler no end to hear it, his Pitt looks as though he’d be just as comfortable piloting a Greenpeace inflatable as he is knocking the stuffing out of wayward European industrialists. Zahn, to his credit, keeps up with the proceedings, adding his patented half-mast slacker panache to a film already bursting at the seams with big, dumb fun. Only Cruz’s Eva comes off as an addendum to the proceedings: Her bedroom tussle with Pitt notwithstanding, she’s exists in Cussler’s world as a bosomy foil to Dirk’s runaway machismo (and looks damn good doing it). White hats and black hats abound in both Cussler's and Eisner’s worldviews, which makes it easy to hiss the villain and cheer the hero should you be so inclined. Just don’t go expecting complex moral and ethical quandaries and you’ll likely never think of Ishtar even once.