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Sahara Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

You don't need to read Clive Cussler's novel to enjoy Sahara. Hell, you don't even need to know how to read to enjoy Sahara, a fun, silly, white-knuckle action flick that exists in the smaller capillaries just outside vein that brought us Raiders of the Lost Ark and Sky Captain. Of course, Sahara can hardly be mentioned in the same breath as those movies, since it is far less enjoyable, but they are obviously what director Breck Eisner was chasing when he thought to make Sahara. Eisner's vision is clear: an all-balls, no-brains rollercoaster ride through exotic locales, over hazy deserts, and into the clutches of dastardly megalomaniacs, where a handsome action hero with a dark tan and pearly teeth can say "there's no way that should've worked" and be telling the truth—and get away with it. Sahara is silly fun for silly fun's sake, and it does its familiar dance with a smile.

Sahara smiles at itself and its audience, but that doesn't mean it's always a hoot to watch. In fact, a good third of this movie simply doesn't work—there are ridiculous scenes which gnaw at our disbelief threshold, dialogue which is forehead-slappingly bad (referring to a villain: "he puts the 'war' back in 'warlord.'"), and a few too many action sequences which desperately lack energy. Far too often, Sahara exists on the worn-out edge of action film history's broken record, not quite giving us the sensational show we want, but not quite disappointing us either. Sahara has its moments, but they are too few and too spread out to warrant paying full admission. I say sneak into the theater—then you'll get your money's worth.

Some reviews of Sahara have said that the story has little or no relation to Clive Cussler's novel. Does that hurt the movie in any way, I wonder? Could a more literal adaptation have been better, with more fleshed-out characters or more interesting ideas? Does anyone really care? Hell, the contents of Cussler's book hardly matters, since this story could've easily been patched together from the combined cliches of five or six existing adventure movies. Our hero is Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey), who's like Indiana Jones but without the hat, without the whip, and without a cool name. Actually, come to think of it, Dirk is more like James Bond than Indy, since he shares 007's sly, tongue-in-cheek wit and adorable recklessness, without too much of Indy's sour, grizzled disposition. Anyway, the point is that by day, Dirk Pitt is a leading world naval historian, and by later that day, he and Al (Steve Zahn), his fellow naval officer and buddy since kindergarten, are globe-trotting archeologists. The movie opens when Dirk finds a gold Confederate coin, the history of which is related to a legendary Civil War boat which went missing almost 200 years ago. Dirk determines that the boat may be sitting at the bottom of the Niger River in Africa (how and why it got there remains a mystery), and so he and Al journey to Mali to start their hunt.

On the way, they meet Dr. Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), who works for the World Health Organization and, I'd wager, got her PhD for looking just so damn beautiful in a white lab coat. Dr. Rojas is off to Mali to investigate a peculiar plague taking shape in the region, so she hitches a ride on Dirk's charter. Of course, their fates intertwine in Mali, and soon finding the source of Eva's plague and locating Dirk's Civil War boat merge into a common goal. Don't ask why. It just happens.

You can sure bet that Sahara is bursting at the seams with action, but only some of it sizzles in the African sun, while the rest feels undercooked. I loved one terrific sequence within and on top of a chemical plant precisely because it echoes Raiders of the Lost Ark so masterfully, and another, involving a loud helicopter and a louder cannon, because it twinges with an originality that the rest of the picture lacks. Sometimes this movie really gathers momentum—sometimes it even feels unstoppable—and it promises another, better kind of movie that never fully arrives. See, most of Sahara is pretty tedious when you get right down to it: fist fights and car chases and big explosions regurgitated from cinema of the recent past (the repetitive car chase leading up to the cannon moment perfectly exemplifies this). Sahara can be great fun, but it can just as easily be a by-the-numbers action movie, a boring betrayal of what it could've been with perhaps a little more elbow grease.

Oh, but Matthew McConaughey is such a magnetic rascal of an actor with such a warm, playful demeanor that you just want to watch him again and again. Penelope Cruz, too, is lovable, and so is Steve Zahn, since his comic energy is both eager and innate. Sahara's whole cast is endearing—even William H. Macy stops by to class up the joint—and that's certainly a blessing. However, Sahara is never as entertaining as we imagine it will be, nor is it anything we haven't seen before. There were times when I got caught up in Sahara, but never was I swept away.

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