A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG-13, 127 mins.
Dirk Pitt: Matthew McConaughey / Al Giordino: Steve Zahn /
Dr. Eva Rojas: Penelope Cruz / French industrialist: Lambert Wilson
/ CIA Agent Carl: Delroy Lindo / Admiral Sandecker: William H. Macy
General Kazim: Lennie James
Imagine if Indiana Jones looked like a College frat boy who had a wiseass and whimsical sidekick and was further combined with the search for a not-so-ancient historical relic that widely goes all over the narrative map and back again…and you most certainly would have SAHARA. Oh, it also has that necessary element of a plague that is capable of destroying all aquatic life as we know it. Calling this new adventure flick a third-rate Indiana Jones picture (which is what it’s ostensibly trying to be) sort of feels like a glorified compliment.
Now, I have never held it against escapist entertainments that try to appropriate heavily from the gee-whiz thrills of the classic Steven Spielberg/George Lucas trilogy (some works like THE MUMMY and THE ROCKETEER are fine examples of copying that sort of paid off successfully). No, the main problem with SAHARA is that it ultimately does not generate the same sort of giddy excitement or genuine interest in its story and characters that the Indy films (or even its knockoffs) had. SAHARA is a film that is too long for its tone and mood, way too ambitious in its story which meanders everywhere, and unsuccessful in its attempts to find a perfectly healthy balance between taking itself too seriously or too lightly.
Yes, some of SAHARA is funny and exciting, but the final product lacks inspiration and vitality, the kind that would have lifted it off the ground from all other adventure serial style action pictures. I smiled all the way through the INDIANA JONES pictures. I only felt modest tingles at the corner of my mouth through much of SAHARA. This sort of film looked fresh and invigorating maybe 20 or 30 years ago, but SAHARA sort of crash-lands into something that is largely inert, tired, manufactured, and just plain bland and dull. Not even the likeable and charismatic presence of its performers can keep this film afloat out of the quicksand.
SAHARA is based (and I use that term rather sparingly) on the epic and sprawling African adventure yarn by Clive Cussler. The work is some 800 pages in length and, I am told, is a really exhilarating and thrilling read. Much like other long novels like, say, BATTLEFIELD EARTH, someone out there thought that adapting a novel as dense and detailed as Cussler’s into a workable two-hour film would have been achievable. This is sort of revealing of some of the film’s failings; at 127 minutes, it’s just far too long and has a narrative that crosses over into too many distracting tangents. Perhaps if they simplified the story and gave it more cohesion then maybe SAHARA would have been a more pleasurable romp. This film sort of wears out its welcome at the 90-minute mark. Not only that, but the plot has a series of revelations and turning points that border preposterousness and take a sharp turn into absurdity rather fast.
SAHARA feels cobbled together hastily of discarded moments from the INDIANA JONES pictures, from its plot, main characters, and villains. The film opens during the latter stages of the Civil War during which a Confederate ironclad ship is in the midst of a feverous battle with Union soldiers. Fast forward to the present day to treasure hunter Dirk Pitt (I guess Dirk Diggler was already taken - played by Matthew McConaughey) and his obsessive quest to find the ironclad. Why? Well, it is his belief that the ironclad somehow managed to escape the Union and (get this) sail all the way across the Atlantic and into Africa (yup, sure, uh-huh).
Of course, his superiors think he’s a pleasure-seeking nut, but his trusty partner and sidekick Al (the always funny and affable Steve Zahn) stands right by his side, although rather begrudgingly. They just may be the first cinematic dynamic duo that went to kindergarten, subsequent elementary through post-secondary schooling, and military training together that I know of. Al and Dirk make for an effective pair with good chemistry, and their camaraderie is one of the few saving graces of the film. They keep things light and fun.
Faster than you can say “Ark if the Covenant”, Dirk gets a tip that just may lead him to the legendary ship in Africa. As the two arrive there they soon discover (if looking for a 150-year-old ship in the desert was not bad enough) that a dangerous plague is spreading across the country like a locust. Don’t fret, though, because a beautiful and obligatory female-love-interest figure in the form of Dr. Eva Rojas (played by the gorgeous Penelope Cruz in a performance that never once has credibility) is looking into the plague and desperately trying to uncover its source. Of course, in a plot this convenient, the two cross paths as they both soon discover that they may have mutual needs that they can fulfill.
It appears that the plague may or may not be a poison that spreads down rivers and streams and when it gets to the Atlantic it will destroy all ocean life as we know it (yup, sure, uh-huh). There is also an unintentionally hilarious computer simulation that shows how this plague will eventually spread across the world it what appears to be an instant. Hmmmm…maybe there is some sort of evil African dictator that may be the cause of this violent outbreak? Oh yeah, there is in the form of General Kazim (Lennie James) who is in dastardly villain auto-pilot mode with some aid from an evil megalomaniac billionaire played by Lambert Wilson (from the last two MATRIX films) who comes across as threatening as a GQ super model.
I say that this film is “convenient” and I mean that ever so sincerely. This just may be one of the most convenient plots I have ever sat through. I liked how the plight of the Doctor conveniently takes a turn to the hero’s plight and search fro the ironclad. I like how conveniently the dictator teams himself up so readily with a wormy and slimy industrialist. I further liked the convenience, if not sheer inanity, of other incidents in the film. One howler is when the two heroes manage to perfectly use their ship to become a suicide bomber of sort to take out the enemy ship. I also loved how they managed to swim to shore to find a perfectly placed set of camels and lodging at their disposal.
I laughed later, even with more ridicule, during a moment when Dirk and Al are nearing death as they hike across the barren desert, find a crashed plane, and within what seems minutes create a makeshift desert parasail with it and coast to sanctuary. The most outlandish moment in the film has to be when the characters manage to stumble upon a secret underground map, which looks like it was drawn by early Neanderthal men, that they are able to use to find the ironclad. Oh yeah, and it sure is amazing and convenient how they find it with one perfectly placed shot of explosives. Oh, and how’s this for a groaner – when they get inside the ironclad, with the General’s soldiers hot on their tails, they manage to be able to get the canons working (which have been buried under sand for over a century) and even manage to get them to work despite having no expert training in civil war explosives and weaponry. All of this occurred while I was thinking to myself, “And just how the h-e-double hockey sticks did this ship make it from America to Africa??”
SAHARA also further kind of reveals itself as a work that demonstrates just how talented actors can sleepwalk through performances, collect salaries, and make the film barely tolerable. Matthew McConaughey, an actor I have always admired since I first saw him in 1993’s DAZED AND CONFUSED, does what he can with this Indy clone, and Steve Zahn makes for some offbeat and funny quirkiness amidst all of the ridiculousness. Cruz, on the other hand, is the eye candy of the picture (I have never seen a worker for the World Health Organization who works in the blistering heat of the African desert and still have such perfectly applied makeup at all times as she does) and her relationship with Pitt is about as forced and jilted as it could get. The two have zero chemistry together. Even more wasted is the great William H. Macy in a complete throwaway role as a retired Admiral that is Pitt’s boss who essentially stands around through much of the film barking sarcastically back at Pitt through cell and satellite phones. Macy has never looked more bored than he does here, as does Delroy Lindo as a CIA agent that is conveniently there to cross the t’s and dot the i’s of the story.
Don't get me wrong - some of SAHARA is fun and thrilling. The opening credit sequence was kind of ingenious in its editing and some of the individual action scenes are polished and well realized. I can just imagine the story conferences for this film: we need action scenes involving boats, planes, automobiles (both classic and contemporary), dune buggies, camels, horses, and a secret James Bondian Lair. The film has all of that and more, and McConaughey and Zahn try to ham it up as much as possible to make the film work on modest levels.
Yet, too much of this film made me wince more in disbelief that it was supposed to. I really, truly wanted to believe that a poison that ended up in the African river beds could eventually make its way to the ocean and destroy all water life. I wanted to believe that Dirk and company could make a vehicle out of an abandoned plane without tools. I wanted to believe that an ironclad vessel could have made it across the ocean and into Africa 150 years ago, be later buried under sand and still have it weapons work in the present day. Honestly, I really, really wanted to believe all of this. Okay, I am always a sucker for dumb-downed popcorn entertainment without a brain in its head, but this film is not so much dumb as it is nearly completely intellectually vacant. You also know that when a film that should have just been about the search for a relic and instead takes a bad u-turn into OUTBREAK territory, then you’re in trouble. Imagine Indiana Jones trying to solve the mystery behind a smallpox epidemic while trying to find the Holy Grail and you’ll get the idea.
SAHARA is a film that I tried ever so patiently to like and have fun with. I can’t say that I did not have a hoot with some of its individual moments, but I also can say confidently that there was a lot that I didn’t like. The film inevitably lacks integrity, inventiveness, and heart and instead becomes a stereotypical catalogue of action movie clichés, cardboard cutout and one-dimensional villains, and not to mention that it has a widely out of place pop soundtrack that left me stupefied (if the film’s tone was not consistent, having to listen to oddly placed pop tunes only further contributes to the film’s misplaced zaniness). The film is generally good-natured and has its heart in the right place, but its brain is completely AWOL. And hey, Indy’s adventures seemed fairly implausible as well, but we bought into them because Mr. Jones was a hero with intelligence, wit, and earnestness who used these skills to get him out of messes. Imagine if he looked like a beach bum who belongs on a university campus in ANIMAL HOUSE and gets by on sheer luck and stupid ideas and you sort of have an idea why its harder to invest in and root for Dirk Pitt. SAHARA tries to be everything but ultimately only becomes mediocre and banal.