Posted: Monday, April 11, 2005


  Penelope Cruz, Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn in Paramount's Sahara - 2005 Rated: PG-13 Photo Copyright Paramount Pict

Penelope Cruz, Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn in Paramount's Sahara - 2005

Rated: PG-13

Photo Copyright Paramount Pict

As Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn watch their speedboat blown to bits, foiling the bad guys in the process, I half expected McConaughey's Dirk Pitt to gleefully announce, "I love it when a plan comes together!" The writing on the A-Team could easily compete for subtlety points with the new Clive Cussler adventure, Sahara, a vacant, if enjoyable, movie.

If you don't know the name Dirk Pitt, then chances are you shop in a little more literary section of the airport bookstore. But if you, like most of us, have occasionally forayed into the guilty pleasure genre, the "quick read", you've probably at least seen the name Clive Cussler on one of a handful of best sellers. A former advertising copy writer who enjoys perpetuating the myth that he and his daring marine engineer character Dirk Pitt are one in the same, Cussler is probably the most successful adventure writers of all time. Though his writing is cliched and over the top, it is hard to deny the attractiveness of the tales he weaves, leading his hero Pitt and his friends from NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency) into one improbably dangerous predicament after another. Oddly, however, for such blatantly commercial books, there are only two films based on the prolific work of Cussler, one of which being this week's Sahara. The reason probably lies in the fact that the first of the Dirk Pitt films was 1980's Raise the Titanic, an abysmal failure. Cussler was reportedly so disgusted with the portrayal of his work on screen that he shied away from Hollywood for the next quarter-century. On Sahara however, Cussler was reportedly allowed to help shepherd the film to the screen, and fans hope that it will usher in a whole new series of Pitt-based films.

Dirk Pitt is kind of like a James Bond for the regular guy. He's smart and sassy, but without all that British snobbery. As such, it was a casting coup to snag McConaughey for the role. In Sahara, Pitt teams up with old pal Al Giordino and your requisite "hot doc" (played by Penelope Cruz) to battle corruption, pollution, oppression in the titular sands of the sub-continent. When a mysterious plague strikes a war-torn region of Africa, the World Health Organization enlists the aid of NUMA to assist them in making their way to the hotspot, an excursion that gives Dirk the perfect excuse to follow up on a lead from his pet project - a missing Civil War battleship that somehow made its way across the ocean to wind up buried in the wandering dunes. You can imagine that things don't go as planned.

As smart as the hiring of McConaughey may have been, his buddy Al is woefully miscast in the person of Steve Zahn. This is not to say that Zahn isn't funny - he is, but he doesn't even come close to resembling the short, barrel-chested italian of the novels. Oh well. As a friend of mine explained to me when I made this same complaint, "Hey, they're trying to sell a movie here!" Though I enjoyed the film over all, I think Zahn's character may have been indicative of the problem I had with the whole thing. The Cussler books read kind of like Indiana Jones stories - replete with wisecracks, but basically serious. Sahara plays more as an action-comedy, a tone I felt strays from the source material. In tone, it is, in fact, very similar to wacky adventure that plays out in National Treasure, a comparison that should foretell a successful box-office. Though I hated Treasure, I felt little of the same antipathy for Sahara, probably because the latter doesn't rip anything off, and the veracity of the history it portrays is totally irrelevant. Making up a civil war battleship isn't near as offensive as making up a whole new printing technology for Benjamin Franklin.

It may be interesting to note, though it's of little to no consequence as far as the movie is concerned, that director Breck Eisner is the son of infamous Disney mogul Michael Eisner. Though the director has had almost no experience outside of TV and direct to video, the film is being touted as "A Breck Eisner Film." I wonder if this is to play on his father's name, or to create career buzz around a guy who has had almost no career to date. It's also interesting to note that production company Bristol Bay, who co-financed Sahara, also has a big-budget version of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia in development over at Disney, but any connection could just be chalked up to cynicism.

Sahara is what it promises. A fairly empty-headed but enjoyable popcorn adventure flick with lots of explosions, an engaging plot, and at least passable acting. The writing leaves something to be desired, but die-hard Cussler fans won't feel desert-ed. (Bad pun. Sorry.) Grade: C+

Sahara is rated PG-13 for action violence and some language.

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