|Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 08 April 2005|
There are several movies named “Sahara;” this is another one. And that’s really the approach to take, should you decide to see it: expect a big summer action picture in the middle of spring. Don’t make demands the movie isn’t prepared to deliver, although the script is a shade more interesting than those of most Indiana Jones wannabes. I doubt that this quality comes from the Clive Cussler novel, one of a shelf-full of Dirk Pitt adventures he’s written over the years; they sell well, but they’re just summer reading.
Though released by Paramount, this was made by a multi-national corporation—it’s officially British/Spanish/German/US—who apparently had a difficult time dealing with the notoriously cranky Cussler. He remains cranky; supposedly he’s launched a lawsuit against the makers of “Sahara.” It’s hard to see why; the movie is reasonably entertaining, well-produced and full of great big noisy action scenes. It’s likely to do pretty well at the boxoffice, but whether it will be successful enough to generate a series of Dirk Pitt movies remains to be seen. But it’s clearly what everyone’s aiming for, as the opening credits include “A Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt Adventure.”
As played by Matthew McConaughey, Pitt’s a two-fisted, adventure-loving archaeologist working for the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), headed by crusty retired Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy). They evidently go around the world exploring historically-significant artifacts at the bottom of the sea. Pitt and his life-long buddy Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) have been hoping to find the Texas, the last ironclad of the Confederate Army. Pitt has found a gold coin known to be aboard the Texas when it disappeared at the end of the Civil War—and he found it in a shop in Africa. Everyone else thinks it’s unlikely that a small Civil War battleship crossed the Atlantic unnoticed, but the exuberant Pitt is sure he’s on the right track. And the title shows he is.
But don’t concern yourself too much with the Texas—the movie certainly doesn’t. The well-staged opening set in 1865 depicts the ironclad leaving the site of its last battle. The climax of the movie is set aboard the old ship, now partly buried in Sahara sands—where Pitt finds it by a wildly improbable accident. But then the whole movie is wildly improbable, and shifts from a would-be Indiana Jones adventure to something more like a James Bond thriller midway through.
Pitt and Al meet gorgeous World Health Organization Dr. Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), in Nigeria hoping to gain entrance to Mali. Pitt saves her from some bad guys, and they are attracted to one another. But their paths diverge when Pitt, Al and their friend Rudi (Rainn Wilson) head upriver for Mali, hoping to trace the lost ironclad.
Eva and her partner (Glynn Turman) are sure that a horrible plague is coming downriver from Mali, and try to find its source. They do gain the attention of billionaire entrepreneur Yves Massarde (Lambert Wilson), but Mali is ruled by vicious dictator General Zatep Kazim (Lennie James). It isn’t surprising when we learn later on that Kazim and Massarde are in cahoots.
As Pitt, Al and Rudi head upriver in the Admiral’s expensive cruiser, they’re attacked by Mali soldiers in a well-staged battle on the river, with people falling into the drink, bullets riddling that cruiser, and at least one humongous explosion. Al and Pitt send Rudi back to the irked Admiral—occasionally seen in cutaways—and mount camels to head into the desert.
Kazim’s soldiers, in trucks this time, attack a village the WHO doctors are investigating and kill Eva’s friend, but overlook her as she’s at the bottom of a well. By one of the impressive coincidences this movie is prone to, Pitt and Al happen along in time to kill all the bad guys and save Eva, who joins them on another camel. They meet some suspicious Tuaregs, but are soon befriended by them. In a cave near the interesting-looking Tuareg town—caved out of the sand-colored stone—Pitt finds evidence the Texas passed this way when the area was under water, while Eva learns that what’s killing the people isn’t a disease, but toxic waste.
All this leads to Massarde’s expansive solar energy plant—a giant circle of mirrors plus high-tech equipment galore—which is where the toxic waste is coming from. (I guess; this isn’t explained all that well.) In a development uncharacteristic of James Bond imitations, Massarde himself really does think he’s doing something for the good of mankind; it’s Kassim’s greed that has corrupted his vision. Somehow, all this is in danger of destroying the world, and the CIA (in the welcome person of Delroy Lindo) becomes involved. Hello, Mr. Bond.
In the course of the ongoing battle that follows, Pitt and Eva accidentally uncover the Texas. In one of the departures from his long novel that evidently angered Cussler, the Tuaregs help rescue our heroes. Evil Kazim exults that he can get away with anything, because “nobody cares about Africa.” This is a surprisingly accurate remark, one that gives the movie a bit more gravitas than it otherwise would have. Cussler shouldn’t complain.
Rather like “Sin City,” “Sahara” is what it is—a fast-paced adventure on exotic locations with two-fisted heroes at the center of it. One of the elements that helped make the Indiana Jones adventures so agreeable, even the least of them, Indy always looked like he was frantically making everything up as he went along, seeming forever on the verge of failure but always winning out. As a hero, Dirk Pitt—at least as shown here—is much more commonplace; he’s got a big grin and lots of gusto, and never seems for a moment to be on the brink of disaster. The character would be more appealing if he worried about stuff occasionally.
There is an idea that veers off from standard hero stuff. When the hero has a sidekick, as here, the buddy is usually either excitable but mostly inept, or cowardly but mostly inept. Steve Zahn’s Al is, surprisingly, highly adept, at least as good at this hero stuff as Pitt. He’s around for the occasional wisecrack and to sort of keep Pitt grounded; Zahn does this stuff very well, but as an actor, he’s more entertaining when less confident. And the script, credited to Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and john C. Richards and James V. Hart, is remarkably lean in terms of heroic/anti-heroic wisecracks and colorful villains.
Also, first-time feature director Breck Eisner (son of Michael) makes a novice’s error: he knows what the lines are, so he can hear them fine. We don’t, and they’re often lost in the soundtrack—including the last line in the film. (I think it’s “You throw like a girl,” but I wouldn’t bet on it.) Still, the lines are weak enough that they should stay hidden. A running gag about Zahn’s hats doesn’t work at all, nor does the heroes’ Hope-and-Crosby-like references to doing “a Panama.”
Eisner comes from commercials, but has a feature filmmaker’s eye for expansive scenery (the movie was shot in Africa and Spain) and the staging of action sequences. It’s a remarkably good-looking movie, and though a bit overlong, is well-paced; if it’s not quite engrossing, at least your attention doesn’t wander. However, his fistfight scenes are badly edited; Eisner seems convinced that the more cuts you have the more exciting the scene is. Actually, the reverse is true—and oddly, he seems to understand that in regard to the bigger-scale action sequences.
The score is often annoying, with booming clattering rock music used when a more symphonic score would have worked better. The sound is expertly mixed, except for those dropped lines, the photography is excellent (with several burnt-orange sunrises with silhouettes on the near horizon), and the budget was well spent. (Incidentally, in what may be a little nod to another movie named “Sahara,” the one with Bogart as a tank commander, the heroes pass an old World War II tank, still stuck in the desert.)
“Sahara” is the movie equivalent of a summer-vacation novel, like those Cussler has been turning out for years. It’s forgettable, but it’s mostly a lot of fun, is filmed on attractive locations with attractive heroes and hissable villains doing their stuff, and things blow up with gratifying frequency. It’s not a great movie, but it’s fun while it lasts.
But isn’t “Dirk Pitt” one of the silliest names a hero has ever been given?