Movie Information

Genre: Thriller Comedy
Director: Breck Eisner
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, William H. Macy, Lambert Wilson
Rated: PG-13

Well, now we really know what that excited credit — “Directed by Breck Eisner!” — at the end of the trailer for Sahara meant. Not much.

There’s nothing all that wrong with Eisner’s direction of Sahara, apart from his tendency to shoot action scenes in so close that you can’t tell what’s happening to which character (which helps hide whether or not he can truly direct action). But there’s certainly nothing about the Eisner name to sell anyone on seeing the film, and nothing about his handling of the film to make it likely that his reputation will change in the near future.

That said, Sahara is an enjoyable adventure romp of the sillier stripe. It’s also just about the most predictable such film in living memory — outdistancing even National Treasure (which it rather resembles) on that score. There’s not one twist in the film that you can’t see coming a mile away — although that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because Sahara works best if viewed as a good-humored joke that the audience is in on.

What Eisner’s battery of four — count ’em, four — screenwriters has done is take a reasonably serious adventure tale and turn it into something like Road to Nigeria.

Except for the fact that Steve Zahn’s Al Giordino is rendered utterly sexless — so he doesn’t compete with Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) for the affections of Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz) — the two male leads are pretty much carbon copies of Bing and Bob from all those silly movies that ran from 1940-’62. The duo is presented as being friends since childhood. Dirk is the smooth talker with scads of breezy charm, whose crazy schemes are always landing both of them in hot water. Al goes along with these plans simply because his friendship with Dirk doesn’t allow any alternative. This is identical to the “Road Picture” formula — and, strangely enough, it generally works.

The adventure is slightly more straight-faced (and certainly bigger), and the testosterone level is goosed, but otherwise it’s the same approach. Considering how long it’s been since Paramount Pictures scored a major hit at the box office, this kind of looking back to their glory days might not be such a bad idea.

The story line is arrant nonsense: The last of the Civil War ironclad ships disappears with a cargo of gold and ends up in the Sahara Desert. (Some sort of explanation is offered in the course of the film, but I’d just as soon blame the whole thing on continental drift and be done with it.) No one believes this story except — you guessed it — Dirk, until the tale finally gets a smattering of credence when a gold Confederate coin shows up in Africa.

Naturally, this means that Dirk’s going to go look for the errant ship. For part of the journey, he finds himself saddled with Eva Rojas, who is trying to uncover the source of a mysterious plague that threatens to spread across the continent. Of course, a kind of romance (the slightly bickering variety) blossoms and it isn’t long before Eva ends up in various and sundry situations that call for her to be rescued. Meanwhile, a nefarious plot is uncovered.

It’s all rather engaging, in a disarmingly old-fashioned way. There’s a slight hint of racism in the fact that two white boys on camels are more than a match for a veritable horde of well-armed African guys (who redefine the term “can’t hit a moving target”). But that’s nicely subverted by a late-in-the-film gag, and all in all, it seems likely that any group of bad guys, regardless of color, would be required to be this inept simply to make Sahara‘s script work.

Overall, the movie is good-natured junk that amuses while it’s onscreen, and evaporates almost immediately afterward. Will the film push McConaughey over into true stardom? Will it result in a whole series of Dirk Pitt adventures — in spite of the fact that the character’s name makes it sound like he ought to be starring in porno movies? Well, if a Civil War ironclad can end up buried in the African desert, then just about anything is possible. Rated PG-13 for action violence

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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