Ask any film buff to describe the plot of an old-fashioned action-adventure, and they’ll likely tell you that it must be a.) set in an exotic location where the villain’s wicked henchmen ride through the desert on camels, speaking in a foreign tongue, b.) star a handsome, rugged leading man with high cheekbones, an amber-colored beard, and a cocky, don’t mess with me grin, and c.) focus on a dangerous journey in pursuit of a hidden treasure, a priceless artifact, or a lifesaving antidote. These, of course, are the clichés most commonly associated with the action-adventure genre, and the ones that factor prominently in the storyline of Sahara, the latest Indiana Jones rip-off, starring real-life lovebirds Matthew McConaughey and Penélope Cruz.
Based on the best-selling novel by Clive Cussler, Sahara chronicles the rousing tale of a daring adventurer named Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey), who lands in West Africa with his wisecracking sidekick, Al Giordino (Steve Zahn, That Thing You Do!), to locate a Civil War liner known as the Ship of Death. The vessel, which set sail in 1865 from Richmond harbor, was headed Southeast when it suddenly disappeared, and was never heard from again. According to legend, the ironclad battleship sank while carrying a cargo of gold, leaving historians and explorers, like the dashing Dirk Pitt, to wonder what really happened.
Fast-forward 140 years, as Pitt and Giordino are escorting the gorgeous Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz) across the Niger River to uncover the truth about a mysterious plague sweeping through West Africa, when they meet an artifact dealer, who sells them a gold coin minted by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Sensing the connection between the coin and the ship, Pitt and Giordino travel to the edge of the Sahara, where they discover a cave filled with hieroglyphics. One of which contains a boat resembling the Ship of Death.
But just as their voyage is starting to flourish, an evil dictator named General Kazim (Lennie James, Snatch) kills Eva’s partner from the World Health Organization, after receiving word from Yves Massarde (Lambert Wilson, Catwoman), a smarmy French industrialist, that Dr. Rojas is trying to find the cause of the plague. Still, Eva is more determined than ever to stop the spread of infection, and reteams with Pitt and Giordino to locate the source of this deadly epidemic.
Of course, outwitting the bad guys through a series of high-speed chases is chief among the must-have factors for any action-adventure, and Sahara is certainly no exception to that rule, treating viewers to a multitude of eye-popping special effects, including a red-hot scene in which Pitt and Giordino pull a Panama, hurling themselves off a speedboat before it explodes courtesy of a Cuban cigar. That said, director Breck Eisner (son of Disney CEO Michael Eisner) may be adept at creating larger than life action sequences, but falls short when it comes to the film’s less astonishing moments. For example, in the opening scene as the Texas (aka the Ship of Death) fires at an enemy before fleeing in a blaze of glory, the audience can hardly see the battleship. Let alone understand what’s going on.
As is the case with most literary adaptations, Sahara forgoes the novel’s mundane backstory, as well as a few of its main characters, in favor of a more interesting, if not hackneyed plot, where the audience is forced to fill in the movie’s narrative gaps. Diehard fans expecting a literal interpretation of Cussler’s beloved novel will likely be disappointed by Sahara – as was Cussler himself – calling it a cheap attempt to cash in on the book’s unprecedented success by generating another lucrative action-adventure franchise. Anyone who’s read Sahara knows the novel boldly tackles issues ranging from capitalism to feminism to racism. But in the movie none of that really matters as Eisner and his team of screenwriters gloss over the book’s central theme of environmental consciousness with a slew of action-packed stunts, designed to broaden the film’s appeal.
Still, Sahara boasts some of the most awe-inspiring shots of the desert ever captured on film, and features a sizzling soundtrack from Grand Funk, Steppenwolf, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But the film’s greatest secret weapon is its hip, young cast, lead by the bronzed and buff Matthew McConaughey, who despite public scrutiny delivers a solid performance as the swashbuckling Dirk Pitt. Sporting dark, wavy locks, chestnut tinted stubble, biceps the size of cantaloupes, and a grin so mischievous that it curls up on his lips like a Cheshire cat, McConaughey taps into his character’s unflinching bravado, turning Dirk Pitt into one of the most courageous action heroes ever to hit the silver screen. Perfectly cast as Latin spitfire, Eva Rojas, Spanish beauty Penélope Cruz brings a genuine sense of passion to an otherwise thankless role, while the hilarious Steve Zahn – nothing like the fictional Al Giordino – does the impossible, making Sahara’s cheesy one-liners funnier than they should be.
If you base your viewing pleasure on action rather than plot, then Sahara should definitely be at the top of your must-see list. If not, then it’s just another mediocre popcorn flick that gives you a lot of bang for the buck.