A hunk, a ham, a hottie but ‘Sahara’ needs more heat
Second only to time travel, desert locations are problematic as action/adventure film settings. Movies with time travel stories rarely satisfy the, “If you change the past then the reason you needed to do it in the first place won’t exist” problem, so those films are handicapped to begin with.
Similarly, movies that feature a desert backdrop share a universal credibility hurdle: Eventually, the heroes are going to end up lost in some sandy wasteland, but they never die of exposure or lack of water. Never.
Please, no letters. Of course it is understood that these films are made primarily to entertain, and “Sahara” does that quite often during its longish 127 minutes.
It offers more than its share of preposterous science. But it’s played against its engaging silliness in such a way that even in our sandstorm of disbelief, we can go along for the ride. Some of the action sequences (featuring a slick, “shallow V” speedboat and a vintage 1936 Voisin automobile) are inventive, albeit mired in the shadow of their James Bond-meets-Indiana Jones heritage. The locations of Lagos and Mali Nigeria were shot in Morocco and Spain and give the film a unique, exotic look.
Hunky Matthew McConaughey plays Dirk Pitt, who with lifelong pal Al Giordino (Steve Zahn, Hollywood’s preeminent zany sidekick), goes in search of the last ironclad Civil War battleship. Naturally, they believe the boat ended up stranded in a West African desert.
Another side plot involves dangerous toxins leaking out of the Niger River, and a warlord who plans to exploit the danger. The main thrust here is that a beautiful scientist (played by Penelope Cruz) is sent to offer humanitarian aid.
McConaughey and Cruz are now a much-balloyhooed offscreen couple, though each has stated they were “just friends” during the shoot. We can take them at their word because there is little spark between the American heartthrob and the Spanish enchantress. Too bad, because a little chemistry would have made the proceedings more interesting.
There are long stretches in “Sahara” where little action takes place, which calls attention to the film’s inadequacies. It’s always surprising to me how these big budget films are often directed by newcomers. In this case, the rookie director is Breck Eisner. He shows promise — something tells me the kid won’t ever be jobless — even if his famous father gets canned from running Disney.
But with a strong cast that includes William H. Macy as a retired admiral who funds our protagonist’s adventures, this film should have been much better. It’s a nice diversion, but isn’t at the level of “National Treasure” or “The Mummy,” films of nearly identical formula that are funnier and smarter despite the leaps in logic they require.
If you have to have your adventure film set in a desert, rent “Lawrence of Arabia,” the last great film that featured one.
Rated PG-13 for Action violence