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Thursday, October 2, 2008

FILM REVIEW OF ''SAHARA" (2005)

Bestselling novelist Clive Cussler should have known better than to trust Hollywood to make another of his exciting, sea-going yarns about Dirk Pitt into a movie. The first Pitt cliffhanger, "Raise the Titanic" (1980), tanked so badly at the box office that it actually hurt sales of Cussler's literary franchise. Twenty-five years after that fiasco, Cussler must have felt confident that the time was right to give his larger-than-life hero a second chance. Evidently, something went awry somewhere in the mix, because Cussler is currently suing the producers. He says that they promised him script approval then ignored him. Despite a first-rate cast, top-lining Matthew McConaughey, Stephen Zahn, and sexy Penelope Cruz, along with some scenic Moroccan locales, "Sahara" (** out of ****) amounts to nothing more than a noisy, episodic, run-of-the-thrill, $120-million potboiler. This second-rate, sun-scorched saga serves up more amusing lightweight moments than heavyweight melodramatic face-offs. The hopelessly over-plotted screenplay concocted by four scribes (newcomers Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer as well as John C. Richards of "Nurse Betty" and James V. Hart of "Laura Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life") recycles all the usual action movie clich├ęs and never deviates from the standard-issue, derring-do formula. For example, a henchman with a sniper rifle cannot nail a good guy charging toward him across open terrain! Armed with shell-spewing automatic weapons, the other heavies are incredibly sorry shots. Nobody but the heroes here can hit the side of a sand dune. Usually, audiences must suspend their disbelief to make it through a James Bond extravaganza or Indiana Jones epic, but "Sahara" gives new meaning to preposterous. Were that not bad enough, the chief villains emerge as ordinary, ineffectual ruffians. They pose either no tangible threat or such a marginal dramatic menace that we know our long-suffering heroes will vanquish them. When the villains lack magnitude, then the heroes lack stature. Villains make or break action movies, and the villains here have only half as much screen time as the heroes.

"Sahara" opens with a bang in the year 1865 during the final days of the Civil War. The pyrotechnics in this scene surpass anything that follows. As the Union Army bombards Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, the rebels load a fortune in gold coins aboard the C.S.S. ironclad Texas. Miraculously, the ironclad slips through the Federal blockade and vanishes without a trace. Some 140 years after the mysterious disappearance of the Texas, an ex-U.S. Navy Seal, Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey of "Reign of Fire"), embarks on an obsessive search for the missing vessel. When he isn't pursuing leads on the Texas, Pitt works as a jack-of-all-trades, deep-sea diving daredevil for retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Sandecker (the ever dependable William H. Macey of "Cellular") who presides over a private maritime salvage outfit called the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA). When we first meet Pitt, Sandecker, and Pitt's perennial comic sidekick Al Giordino (Steve Zahn of "National Security"), our trio of treasure hunters are pulling an African artifact off the ocean floor near Nigeria, for Yves Massarde (Lambert Wilson of "The Matrix Reloaded") a wealthy French industrialist. Meanwhile, in a separate plot, two World Health Organization doctors, Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz of "Blow") and Frank Hopper (Glynn Turman of "Light It Up"), discover a deadly infectious plague. When Eva investigates, she places herself in jeopardy. Three thugs working for a bloodthirsty African warlord, General Kazim (Lennie James of "Snatch") who has a taste for rare autos and antique firearms, manhandle Eve on a beach. Since he happens to be snorkeling nearby, Pitt intervenes and delivers Eva from their evil clutches. After she has recovered from the incident, Admiral Sandecker agrees to let Frank and her hitch a ride with Pitt and Giordino on a NUMA yacht into war-torn Mali where Pitt is tracking down his latest lead on the Texas. Sandecker has given Pitt three days to find his fabled ironclad. It seems that our hero found one of those CSA twenty dollar gold coins in a nearby African town. Naturally, our heroes collide with the ruthless general and his trigger-happy minions. Mind you, this synopsis covers only the first third of an action-thriller overloaded with exposition.

The worse thing about "Sahara" is that our heroes yap more than scrap. The bullets begin to fly about forty minutes or so into the modern day fracas. Although Eva and Dirk fight alongside each other, the sparks never fly between them. McConaughey and Cruz aren't allowed to smooch until they've dispatched the villains and saved the world from an environmental cataclysm. Not surprisingly, every character in "Sahara" qualifies as a stereotype. The scruffy, lovable Zahn steals the show with his witticisms and his butt-crack antics, while McConaughey hurls his brawny, buffed-up, deeply-tanned physique into one predicament after another. The charismatic McConaughey acquits himself well enough as an action figure, but his Dirk Pitt makes little impression as the hero of a proposed franchise. Unlike Cussler's larger-than-life literary hero, McConaughey's Pitt comes off as a colorless cross-between of James Bond and Angus MacGyver. In a crowd of cinematic heroes, Dirk Pitt just doesn't stand out. One minute Cruz's Eva behaves like a dainty, bespectacled doctor but the next minute she blasts away with a sub-machine gun like a gangster and straddles a camel as if to the saddle born. First-time helmer Breck Eisner (son of former Disney honcho Michael Eisner) directs with solid proficiency but little flair. He sticks to basics in the combat scenes. You've seen the boat chases, helicopter/car chase, and the shoot outs staged with greater ingenuity in better movies. Clocking in at over two hours, Eisner could have eliminated thirty minutes. He shepherds "Sahara" along at a leisurely pace as if urgency weren't a priority. Civil War buffs won't be fooled for an instant that anything like what "Sahara" conjures up could have occurred. Nowhere near as entertaining as the vastly superior "National Treasure," "Sahara" shares more similarities with the sprawling desert from which it draws it name.

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