Thursday, September 08, 2005

Sahara / *** (PG-13)

Dirk Pitt: Matthew McConaughey
Al Giordino: Steve Zahn
Dr. Eva Rojas: Penelope Cruz
Massarde: Lambert Wilson
Admiral Sandecker: William H. Macy
General Kazim: Lennie James
Rudi Gunn: Rainn Wilson
Carl: Delroy Lindo

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Breck Eisner. Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua C. Richards and James V. Hart. Based on the novel by Clive Cussler. Running time: 127 min. Rated PG-13 (for action-related violence).

In the opening scenes of Sahara, the audience is transported back to the American Civil War in grand Hollywood fashion, with explosions blasting left and right, extras dying in the background, and obviously a great deal of money being spent on an introduction setting that will not be revisited again after the first five minutes of the film have passed into memory. How do we know this Civil War setting will not be returned to? Because the trailers all showed Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn and Penelope Cruz running around the modern desert. As the Civil War introduction to the film closes with an ironclad war ship sailing off into the darkness during the battle, the intelligent audience member knows that much of the plot of the film will hinge upon the fate of this ironclad which mysteriously disappears after this introduction and that this would be a great point to shut off most of the cranial functions so you can just sit back and enjoy some escapist entertainment.

Sahara is an adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones with a taste of James Bond thrown in and it does a pretty good job providing an exciting and humorous action adventure. Plausibility be damned. Dirk Pitt is the dashing hero in this tale. Perhaps his is the worst name ever conjured up by an adventure novelist, although Clive Cussler seemed to provide fairly normal names for pretty much everyone else involved. He comes with standard comic foil in partner Al Giordino and damsel-in-distress/love interest Dr. Eva Rojas. All three are provided with an appropriately overcomplicated plot and moral-free power hungry villains to thwart. It isn’t quite as high class as James Bond or Indiana Jones, but with a bowl of popcorn thrown into the deal there can be no real complaints.

Most of the film’s success is due to the surprisingly effective action comedy team of McConaughey (Reign of Fire) and Zhan (Shattered Glass) as Dirk and Al respectively. The two are part of a marine salvage crew for NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency) under the direction of Admiral Jim Sandecker (William H. Macy, The Cooler). While on a salvage mission off the coast of West Africa, Dirk saves the life of World Health Organization doctor Eva Rojas (Cruz, Head in the Clouds), who is investigating the outbreak of what looks like a highly contagious disease along the lines of the Ebola virus. This eventually leads them into conflict with repressive dictator General Kazim (Lennie James, Snatch) and the French industrialist with whom he has struck a sinister business arrangement, Yves Massarde (Lambert Wilson, Catwoman). Not so surprisingly, dodging bullets, jumping out of exploding boats, chasing down deadly viruses and jumping on to speeding trains eventually leads our heroes to that missing ironclad from so many years ago.

McConaughey is effective as the debonair swashbuckler. He brings his brand of laid back southern charm to the archetype, which in turn allows for a more relaxed atmosphere to the action itself. He turns Bond into a man who doesn’t shave. He works well off Zahn’s comic zeal, offering up more hearty laughs than your average actioner. The two bicker like a married couple at times, yet are able to pull off the effect that they actually are action heroes, former military specialists.

Zahn is particularly surprising in what he brings to the fun. Zahn’s dry wit is intact and threatens to steal the show with his deadpan delivery of sarcasm, as in the final show down when Al returns from fixing something during a hail of artillery and Dirk asks him what took him so long, “I stopped for coffee.” “Did you get a receipt?” “Yeah, I got a receipt!” But he also does a great job selling his military training. He handles guns in this flick like a pro and nabs a typical muscle bound hero gag for himself in a scene where he is asked to drop his weapons and ends up with a large arsenal lying at his feet.

Sahara is nothing cinematically amazing, but it is pure fun. It is McConaughey and Zahn’s picture and the pair bring a charm to it no other pairing of leads could. I laughed a lot and never came anywhere near crying. This is a movie you watch with a smile. You may not remember it a few years down the line, but you’ll enjoy it now.

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