The action-adventure film “Sahara” is the kind of movie Hollywood could do with one hand tied behind its back, blindfolded, and with one of its legs broken due to a car accident on the 405. This is pure, unadulterated “brain mush” fun, and my oh my is it ever fun. Loud, vacuous, improbable, but oh so nice to look at while the brain is shut down for two hours and change. If you can’t enjoy the fact that “Sahara” is a brainless popcorn film made for the easily distracted, or those voluntarily looking to be distracted, then you simply have no appreciation for film as a medium of entertainment.
“Sahara”, based on a novel by the prolific Clive Cussler, stars bongo enthusiast and Texan Matthew McConaughey as the improbably named Dirk Pitt, an ex-Navy SEALS turned marine adventurer. Working under the ever patient command of the stout Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy, cashing a big paycheck), Pitt and long-time buddy Al Giordino (Steve Zahn, perfectly at home as the comedic sidekick) spends their time finding lost treasures from the ocean floor. But Pitt has more ambitious plans in mind, one that includes finding a fabled Confederate ironclad ship that was thought to have gone missing at the tail end of the Civil War over 150 years ago.
As luck, and a script full of convenient plot twists and turns, would have it, Pitt’s search for the missing ship leads him to a war-torn African country, which also happens to be where WHO (World Health Organization) doctor Eva Rojas (McConaughey’s real-life girlfriend Penelope Cruz) is headed to investigate a growing plague. Now in Africa and hunted by a vicious warlord with his own personal army, Pitt, Giordino, and Eva crosses paths with a band of resistant fighters, a slimy Frenchman, and lots and lots of random desert. Then later Dirk and Al stumbles onto the wreckage of what I think is the plane from the Dennis Quad movie “Flight of the Phoenix”, but don’t quote me on it.
Simply put, “Sahara” was made for audiences to check whatever intellectual ability they possess at the door, and to do otherwise is asking for trouble. To wit: you’ll get no sympathy from me if you were foolhardy enough to exercise any cerebral functions during the film. This is pure, mindless entertainment, filled with loud explosions, improbable plot twists, and the kind of shallow characterization that belongs in one of those 1980s action-adventure TV series. Having said that, “Sahara” is also a movie that delivers on everything it promises — international intrigue, tons and tons of explosions and gunfire, and wanton disregard for the justification of a loud action scene that results in stuff blowing up real good.
And stuff blows up really good in “Sahara”. A lot. Most of the time. Okay. Stuff blows up pretty much all the time.
If you wanted to nitpick, I suppose you could wonder why leads Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz has such lousy chemistry, especially considering that there was actual real-life romantic entanglements going behind the scenes. At the risk of sounding like a chauvinist, I mostly blame the lack of chemistry on Penelope Cruz, who I have always suspected was the product of a very sophisticated, elaborate, and inhumanely persistent hype machine. In all the movies I’ve seen her in, Cruz has never really shown anything close to “star quality”, and that run-of-the-mill presence that I’ve come to associate with her continues with “Sahara”.
Mind you, not that the script has any real interest in developing characters. The script is little more than an excuse to get the three main characters into one “action-filled” situation after another. Oh look, they’re in a boat and going down the African river. Gee, is that boat going to blow up real good at some point? That, alas, is as “complex” as “Sahara” ever gets, which isn’t saying much considering that it took four people — count’em, four — to write the screenplay. And how much does the movie resemble Cussler’s book? I couldn’t tell you, not being a fan, or a reader, of Mr. Cussler’s literary works.
Without putting too much of a fine point on it, “Sahara” is intellectually challenged, which in this case is not necessarily a detrimental quality, as that was the obvious intention all along. In that regard, director Breck Eisner has certainly done a bang up job. The desert locale is quite scenic, and the film’s 2-hour run has almost no dead spots whatsoever, which is a definite must in films of this genre. If nothing else, at least you can say that the film never bored you. The choice of songs on the soundtrack is also a major plus, filled with some classic rock and, when appropriate, African chants.
“Sahara” is an unapologetic action-adventure film without any brains to hinder its brawn. The film is straightforward in its inability to be smart and true to its dedication to being loud, fast, and devoid of all levels of substance. One would have liked more chemistry between Cruz and McConaughey, but in a film where the “romance” is little more than perfunctory (if that), I guess you can’t really complain too much. Although it’s curious to note the general lack of chemistry between the two leads, as one has to wonder what that means in real-life when they can’t even fake credible interest in each other onscreen.
Breck Eisner (director) / Clive Cussler (novel), Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, John C. Richards, James V. Hart (screenplay)
CAST: Matthew McConaughey …. Dirk Pitt
Pen’lope Cruz …. Eva Rojas
Steve Zahn …. Al Giordino
Lambert Wilson …. Yves Massarde
Glynn Turman …. Dr. Frank Hopper
Delroy Lindo …. Carl
William H. Macy …. Admiral Sandecker