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Sahara   D+

Paramount Pictures / Bristol Bay Productions

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Breck Eisner
Writers: Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, John C. Richards, James V. Hart (based on the novel by Clive Cussler)
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, Lambert Wilson, Glynn Turman, Delroy Lindo, William H. Macy, Rainn Wilson.

Review by Rob Vaux

Straight from the dustbin of Paramount Pictures comes the most exciting adventure based on a third-rate paperback and directed by the son of a movie mogul ever produced! Which is to say, not actually exciting at all. Or fun. Or anything except excruciatingly embarrassing for everyone involved. Sahara continues Paramount's longtime trend of "low risk" pictures -- formulaic clunkers that don't cost much and make their money by providing a comforting third or fourth choice at the multiplex. The tactic hasn't worked too well, as this broken-down would-be actioner can attest.

For starters, there's the massive case of Indiana Jones envy, which afflicts the film's square-jawed hero Dirk Pitt from the get-go. Matthew McConaughey sports a cancerous tan and an agreeable grizzle in the role, but provides nothing that really appeals beyond a bland movie-star charm. The same can be said for the rest of the cast, from Penelope Cruz's cardboard heroine to Lennie James' typecast villain. Sahara depends largely upon our knowledge of well-worn stereotypes to get us up to speed, and the actors all behave as if they're waiting for their paychecks. Even William H. Macy marks time as Pitt's gruff mentor (with the two-fisted moniker of Admiral Sandecker), signaling that no one cares enough to make this material special at all. That's to be expected, considering that the source is a Clive Cussler novel aimed squarely at the pulp-fiction market, but if the origins were so uninspiring, it probably shouldn't have been made in the first place.

Director Breck Eisner has the basic feel for action movies down as he sends Dirk and wacky sidekick/homoerotic love interest Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) off in search of a lost Confederate ironclad buried in the Sahara sands. (Yes, you read that right.) In addition, the script adds enough plots to fill a whole rack at the airport Barnes & Noble: looming epidemics, African civil wars, sinister businessmen cutting backroom deals, even a nebulous threat that may destroy all life on Earth if Pitt doesn't save the day. Despite subpar editing and the requisite bumper crop of implausibilities, Eisner manages to fit it all in to a 127-minute running time and keeps things moving briskly. The film's resolute chases-and-explosions formula ensures that the theater's subwoofers will be well-tested, and as ridiculous as it can be, at least Sahara is rarely boring.

That's cold comfort, however, when the film's less savory elements make themselves known. Pitt and his companions embody a sort of ugly Americanism that passes off ego and arrogance as good cheer. They belong to a team of naval archaeologists who recover sunken artifacts from the past -- as well as thwarting the odd dictator and rescuing helpless damsels by the timely use of a spear gun. Sahara posits them as figures of swashbuckling fun, but they prove more annoying than endearing. The subtext they embody is actively disturbing, presenting heroic white folks squaring off against evil black folks. (Oh, there's a token paleface among the villains, but he's French, so he doesn't really count.) Sahara makes a half-hearted nod towards equality with some noble tribesmen clichés, while wasting Delroy Lindo in the role of an amiable spook who arrives to lend a hand. But otherwise, it's all swaggering jingoism as Pitt and Giordino travel Third World rivers in their obscenely expensive powerboat, playing Skynyrd tunes at high decibels and wondering why the locals keep shooting at them.

Admittedly, one should be more lenient towards such material, since it's hardly in the market for even elementary artistic statements. But Sahara is so derivative and lazy in every other area that nothing ever shows up to counterbalance its subtext. It's as empty and disposable as a Starbuck's trash bin, in that sense emulating its source perfectly. But no matter how humble or modest its goals, it should be accountable for more than padding two hours with mindless banality. Saturday-afternoon cable is full of films like Sahara; when it clogs the TNT schedule at the end of its distribution cycle, even the laziest couch potato will be hard-pressed to find anything worthwhile.

Review published 04.07.2005.

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