One could make the case that any movie starring Penelope Cruz or William H. Macy can't be all bad. And "Sahara", which stars both Penelope Cruz and William H. Macy, proves the point: It isn't all bad.
What it is is a big summer action movie that would have been hot stuff about 30 years ago but looks tired and worn today despite a perky, attractive cast that refuses to wilt in the desert sun. Star Matthew McConaughey can draw female audiences just as Cruz draws males, so the film should do enough boxoffice so as not to cause the new Paramount regime any anguish. It might take video and DVD to put the film in the black.
Although shot in Morocco and Spain, the movie is set vaguely in sub-Saharan Africa, mostly Nigeria and Mali. "Sahara" is based on one of novelist Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt adventures, whose intrepid hero is a deep-sea expert and treasure hunter with a nose for trouble and lovely women. In movie terms, Dirk is something of a cross between James Bond and Indiana Jones.
Unfortunately, McConaughey is a little too light to step into the kind of role Harrison Ford or Kevin Costner would have played it a decade or so ago. And Steve Zahn is likable but forced as Al Giordino, Dirk's happy-go-lucky sidekick with a quick quip for any situation. The division of labor between these two is best summed up by Zahn's line: "I'll find the bomb! You get the girl!"
Cruz doesn't have much to do other than look ravishing while jumping from a camel onto a moving train or leaping out of a helicopter to escape the villain. And Macy gets sidelined with a character, nominally Dirk's boss, who hears about all the action over the telephone. Still it is fun to watch the two actors turn nonsense into watchable nonsense.
So what is a deep-sea expert doing in the Sahara? Actually he is searching for a Civil War Ironclad battleship that he and he alone believes somehow drifted from Virginia to Africa 140 years ago. Cruz's Dr. Rojas is a World Health Organization doctor determined to locate the cause of a baffling new plague in Mali. Her search has no real connection to Dirk and Al's quest, yet they keep running into one another in the vast wilderness so that Dirk can rescue her from certain death. (In fairness, she rescues him too.)
The trio's escapades come to the attention of evil French entrepreneur Massarde (Lambert Wilson) and Mali strongman General Kazim (Lennie James) who send the entire Mali army after them to cover up the source of the rapidly spreading illness. Four writers struggle to give the plot any sense of plausibility without much success. Leaps in logic and locations abound as our heroes wisecrack their way through fights without a scratch.
First-time feature director Breck Eisner -- he has directed a TV film -- does a respectable job in maintaining forward momentum and brisk byplay among the actors. The film's action set pieces, including a battle between boats on a river, breaking into a mysterious power plant in the middle of nowhere and various skirmishes between our heroes and the general's faceless soldiers, come off effectively.
There is nothing to them though we haven't seen before, and the use of old pop songs on the soundtrack contributes to a strong feeling of Deja Vu. The film's otherworldly locations and sets that neatly blend into the startling vistas spruce up the formulaic happenings. Production designer Allan Cameron has, after all, designed a Bond movie, and this is his fourth movie in Morocco. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey makes the most of the locations to give them a haunting beauty. No, it isn't all bad but it isn't very good either.
Paramount Pictures and Bristol Bay Prods. present in association with Baldwin Entertainment Group a j.k. livin production, a Kanzaman production
Director: Breck Eisner
Based on the novel by: Clive Cussler
Director of photography: Seamus McGarvey
Production designer: Allan Cameron
Music: Clint Mansell
Costumes: Anna Sheppard
Editor: Andrew MacRitchie
Dirk Pitt: Matthew McConaughey
Al Giordino: Steve Zahn
Dr. Eva Rojas: Penelope Cruz
Massarde: Lambert Wilson
Dr. Hopper: Glynn Turman
Carl: Delroy Lindo
Admiral Sandecker: William H. Macy
Rudi: Rainn Wilson
MPAA rating: PG-13.
Running time: 123 minutes.
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