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'Sahara' waters down its silly fun

Good old-fashioned adventure yarn about a search for a missing Civil War ship hits the rocks when it tries to get serious.

April 08, 2005|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

It might be useful for filmmakers to note that with popcorn movies, the audience's suspension of disbelief is going to dissipate in direct proportion to any attempt to call attention to Serious Issues. It's probably a bad thing if the synopsis begins to sound like the table of contents from last week's Time magazine.

A case in point is "Sahara," an updated adaptation of Clive Cussler's 1992 novel featuring his serialized, formulized maritime adventurer Dirk Pitt. A contemporary seeker of historical treasures -- think Indiana Jones with military training -- Pitt searches for the Texas, a long-lost Confederate battleship, across the grand desert of North Africa in what was the 11th of nearly two dozen books devoted to his exploits. The movie version dumps the novel's President Lincoln assassination subplot, cannibalism and an Amelia Earhart-like aviatrix in favor of emphasizing references to the World Health Organization, ecological disaster and African warlords, all of which may firmly plunge Pitt into the geopolitical complexities of the 21st century but make it increasingly difficult to buy into the hero's implausible derring-do.

More's the pity, because "Sahara" has the makings of a good, old-fashioned, big-budget joy ride. Matthew McConaughey was born to play this type of character with his roguish swagger and puckish grin, and he dives into the part with impressive vigor. He and the incalculably valuable Steve Zahn, as Pitt's sidekick Al Giordino, have terrific chemistry as lifelong buddies and ex-Navy SEALS whose skill sets perfectly complement one another and provide nearly all of the movie's high points.

The initially central plot involving the trail of the mysteriously disappeared Civil War-era ironclad leading to West Africa and then north into the Sahara is an intriguing one, but any suspense is diluted by the incongruous parallel story of Penelope Cruz's WHO doctor (not to be confused with Doctor Who) searching for the source of a plague-like illness. The story lines eventually converge, turning the Texas into a mere plot device and causing us to wonder why we should be concerned with any of this in the first place.

Breck Eisner, son of former Disney mogul Michael and something of a protege of Steven Spielberg, for whom he directed an episode of the miniseries "Taken," guides "Sahara's" big action set pieces with assurance, but would have been better served by a tighter script. Though the visual nods to "Lawrence of Arabia" are appreciated and the film is well-paced, it is overlong at more than two hours and fails to meld its disparate elements.

Credited screenwriters Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, John C. Richards and James V. Hart give McConaughey and Zahn some decent throwaway repartee, but the rest of the dialogue is deadly dull. In boiling down Cussler's massive, 500-plus pages, they and presumably a phalanx of uncredited scribes have concocted a stagnant stew of cliched storytelling, cardboard supporting characters (with the exception of William H. Macy's tough retired admiral) and superficial references to current events.

Sure, Indiana Jones battled Nazis in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," but at a distance of more than 35 years. It's not that "Sahara" takes itself too seriously, it's just that placing Pitt in the center of momentous world problems amid smug platitudes like "Nobody cares about Africa" simply exacerbates the story's ridiculousness and anachronistically simple problem-solving. It's a little hard to have silly fun when you are constantly being reminded that "Hotel Rwanda" and similar stories have been playing out down the road.



MPAA rating: PG-13 for action violence

Times guidelines: Really LOUD!

Matthew McConaughey...Dirk Pitt

Steve Zahn...Al Giordino

Penelope Cruz...Eva Rojas

William H. Macy...Adm. Sandecker

Lambert Wilson...Yves Massarde

Paramount Pictures and Bristol Bay Productions present, in association with Baldwin Entertainment Group, a j.k. livin production, a Kanzaman production, released by Paramount. Director Breck Eisner. Producers Howard Baldwin, Karen Baldwin, Mace Neufeld, Stephanie Austin. Executive producers Matthew McConaughey, Gus Gustawes, William J. Immerman, Vicki Dee Rock. Screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and John C. Richards and James V. Hart. Director of photography Seamus McGarvey. Editor Andrew MacRitchie. Costume designer Anna Sheppard. Music Clint Mansell. Production designer Allan Cameron. Art directors Giles Masters, Tony Reading. Set decorator Anna Pinnock. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.

In general release.

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