Director : Breck Eisner
Screenplay : Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and John C. Richards and James V. Hart (based on the novel by Clive Cussler)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Matthew McConaughey (Dirk Pitt), Penelope Cruz (Eva Rojas), Steve Zahn (Al Giordino), Lambert Wilson (Yves Massarde), Glynn Turman (Dr. Frank Hopper), Delroy Lindo (Carl), William H. Macy (Admiral Sandecker), Lennie James (General Kazim), Jude Akuwidike (Imam), Mark Aspinall (Lawyer), Rakie Ayola (Mrs. Nwokolo)
Dirk Pitt is the hero of 18 of Clive Cussler’s action-adventure novels, but let’s get something out of the way right now: Despite the character’s enduring popularity and the requisite need to copyright his name, Dirk Pitt is the worst name for an adventure hero in the history of the genre. The worst. It sounds like the name of a school bully in a parodic teen comedy. One might even theorize that this unfortunately named hero explains why Cussler’s books, despite selling millions of copies in dozens of language over the past three decades, have only produced two movies, this one and 1980’s ill-fated Raise the Titanic!.
Ironically enough, the name fits the actor who portrays him, Matthew McConaughey, with his buffed stoner charm. If a hero has to be named Dirk, this is what he should look like. After all, McConaughey is one of the last people you would imagine headlining an action film. In a way, it makes sense that his character is introduced in the film in a series of fragmented, disorienting shots of him fighting off a couple of would-be attackers because, as a character in Sahara, Dirk Pitt is nothing but fragments. He never coheres into more than an idea -- a dedicated, charming, rogue treasure hunter -- which is why the movie never takes off and transcends anything beyond middle-of-the-road.
There are two plotlines that interweave throughout Sahara and bring the main characters together. The first involves a Confederate armored ship that broke through a Union blockade at the end of the Civil War and promptly disappeared. Dirk is obsessed with finding this ship, and he believes that it made its way across the Atlantic and wound up somewhere in Africa. He and his partner/comic relief Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) just happen to be in Africa on a treasure hunt for their benefactor, Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy), so they take off for a few days in search of the ship.
Meanwhile, World Health Organization investigator Dr. Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), who adheres steadfastly to the Monica Belluci in Tears of the Sun school of hottie, tank-top-wearing female doctors working in the third world, is tracking down the source of a mysterious plague that is ravaging parts of Africa. Her mission to track down the cause of the disease crosses paths with Dirk’s search for the Civil War ship, and wouldn’t you know the two missions end up being related? Once they team up, the story settles into a semi-rousing lark across the African continent, as they heroes have to face down a villainous plot hatched by a soulless French businessman (Lambert Wilson) and a heinous African dictator (Lennie James) with a fetish for antique guns.
The screenplay, which is credited to no less than four writers (with who knows how many more who are uncredited), jumps from plotline to plotline, stringing them together with a series of action setpieces that fulfill their obligations, but little more. Director Breck Eisner (Thoughtcrimes), son of Disney head Michael Eisner, never manages to achieve a sublime action aura, the kind that makes films like Die Hard (1988) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) so compulsively watchable. Instead, it feels like he’s just throwing anything and everything he has at the audience, hoping that some of it works. His constant use of up-tempo American rock songs from the 1970s (“Sweet Home Alabama,” “Magic Carpet Ride,” etc.) feels particularly forced, as if Eisner is constantly afraid that we aren’t having a good enough time.
In that vein, Eisner plies the buddy-comedy routine between McConaughey and Zahn for all its worth, which mostly involves Zahn throwing out quips and random thoughts and McConaughey reacting with well-worn bemusement. There is a funny, easy chemistry between the two of them, which is jokingly referenced in terms of a marriage early in the film. While this helps on the one hand, it also leeches away any sense of connection between McConaughey and Cruz, rendering their romantic bantering moot and turning their long-delayed (but utterly predictable) kiss in the final reel into little more than a by-the-numbers fulfillment of a tired plot requirement.
Because, as the title suggests, the story in Sahara is set almost entirely in war-torn Africa, it constantly and by necessity dances around the uneasy topic of third-world exploitation and poverty without ever quite tackling it head-on lest the social relevance spoil the adventure-spirit fun. The closest the film comes to stating the obvious is when the dictator, scoffing at the notion that anyone will respond to the massive pollution for which he is responsible, says, “It’s Africa. Nobody cares about Africa.” It’s a slightly jarring moment that is probably meant to paint an even darker portrait of the villain’s amorality, but actually serves to underscore a scary and sad global truth.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Paramount Pictures