Action/adventure films and sand; Hollywood has a penchant for them. The Mummy, The Scorpion King and (step into your movie time machine) Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, not to mention Lawrence of Arabia, et al. Sahara (go on, guess where it’s set) is ‘based’ (note the inverted commas) upon a Clive Cussler adventure novel of the same name and is the most recent film to walk the golden dunes.
Matthew McConaughey (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) plays action hero Dirk Pitt (with a name like that he could hardly be a plumber). The bronzed treasure hunter is obsessed with finding a lost US Civil War ship. His research and a Confederate gold coin have led him to Africa.
Near Lagos, Nigeria, Dirk saves (and therefore meets) Dr Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz: Gothika) a World Health Organisation worker who is investigating a mysterious plague.
Supported by Dirk’s best bud Al Giordino (Steve Zahn: Riding in Cars with Boys), they cross a war-torn country ruled by military dictator General Kazim (Lennie James: Snatch), in a simultaneous search for the plague’s source and the warship.
The Predictability Monster has his teeth well and truly sunk into Sahara. Every twist and turn is textbook. The storyline relies strongly upon luck, not the characters’ brains (though maybe an inkling of their brawn). Take their visit to a rural village: it has been hit by the plague, there is cave art depicting the ship’s last location and the tribal leader’s a handy guy to meet… Good fortune? No. Bad scripting.
However, like the Indiana Jones films, Sahara is not meant to be taken seriously. It’s a light and fluffy action adventure with speedboat chases (our heroes avoiding the bullets of course), the cliched ‘getting on a train while it’s moving’ – albeit from a camel – and a fistfight on top of a very very high helicopter platform in the middle of the desert. There’s also the inevitable romance element between Dirk and the Doctor, although it’s not too believable. (Strange considering McConaughey and Cruz are dating in real life.)
The film’s highest billed actors do reasonable jobs. Texan McConaughey is convincing as the orange tanned, seashell necklace-wearing hero Dirk. Spaniard Penelope Cruz does what she can with an undeveloped character, as does the wonderful William H Macy (Magnolia, Cellular) as Admiral Jim Sandecker, the man bankrolling Dirk’s treasure hunting expeditions.
Sahara’s shining star is, however, Steve Zahn. As Dirk’s almost-comic sidekick (a role he’s played before, see Happy, Texas), Al Giordino, Zahn gets the laughs. At one point Al becomes agitated by losing his favourite hat and not by being shot at.
Despite its failings (and there are many), Sahara is okay. First-time feature film director Breck Eisner (son of Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney) has done a passable job considering the script in the same way that you can’t make steak tartar with fast-food beef burger mince. Let’s just hope the screamingly obvious potential for a The Mummy-like franchise is ignored.