If “Sahara” weren’t quite so dumb, it might have been a lot offun.
A tongue-in-cheek action-adventure movie loosely basedon Clive Cussler’s best-selling novel, this wild ride stars Matthew McConaugheyas maritime treasure-hunter Dirk Pitt, who follows rumors about a missingCivil War ironclad halfway around the world to the North African desert.
But on his way he becomes sidetracked by a higher senseof purpose when a willful, beautiful World Health Organization doctor (PenelopeCruz) enlists his help to sneak into a war-torn country, against orders,to track the industrial-waste source of an illness spreading through localvillages.
The picture’s often over-the-top action sequences havean excess of boys-with-toys spirit. Especially fun are a guns-a-blazin’chase between a speedboat and paramilitary gunboat down a picturesque desertriver, and a scene in which McConaughey and his requisite wisecrackingcool-dork sidekick Steve Zahn (who has practically cornered the marketon such roles) fashion decades-old biplane wreckage into a land-sailingcatamaran after escaping from bad guys in a remote bank of sand dunes.
The circumstances of these episodes are often ludicrous,ignoring even the most basic kind of common sense — which is OK in smalldoses when a movie’s goal is just good dumb fun. But as they add up, themovie’s meager justifications for suspension of disbelief are overrun byexponential absurdity, culminating in an all-too-easy finale that mightbe amusing and exciting if it weren’t so inescapably preposterous.
Under even modest scrutiny, the plot makes even less sensethan the action. It’s a lot of balderdash about a warlord in cahoots withan evil metrosexual French businessman (Lambert Wilson comes off as a discountJames Bond villain), both of whom employ armies of really, really stupidhenchmen.
The movie’s failures are due in large part to an assembly-linescreenplay, heavily influenced by “Indiana Jones” movies and script-doctored withinan inch of its life. But also to blame is the video-game-like directionof Breck Eisner (son of embattled Disney honcho Michael Eisner), whoseinexperience shows in the way “Sahara” feels like a series ofhigh-gloss but low-budget action set pieces loosely tethered together bya thin story, but trying hard to gallop off in random directions.
To some degree McConaughey comes to the rescue, holdingtogether some loose ends with a performance that depicts Dirk as scruffy,dashing, cheeky and all-American, yet so completely at home in exotic foreigncultures that he’s easily embraced by locals weary of Westerners. He’salso entirely credible as the kind of guy who would, without a second thought,put his life’s ambition on hold to help save people from disease. (Of course,the climax conveniently herds all plot points back into the same corral.)
Zahn provides plenty of humor and Cruz seems more naturaland relaxed here than in any of her previous Hollywood films (she’s almostalways superb in Spanish movies). So between the enjoyable performancesand the stand-alone fun of the don’t-take-this-seriously action scenes,”Sahara” would almost qualify as a popcorn-munching early-summerguilty pleasure. Too bad it’s such a transparent and superficial attemptto build a franchise from spit-polished used parts.