It was with great trepidation that I entered the theater that would show me "Sahara." It would've been one of the most anticipated movies of the year for me, since "Sahara" is one of the first of many books I read and loved from bestselling author Clive Cussler. Yet, anticipation turned to fear as word of Cussler suing to halt production leaked into the rumor mill last year and the movie was repeatedly pushed back from summer to fall and eventually to this spring. Then, fear turned to horror as the marketing campaign emerged, revealing a cheesy-looking action movie in the trailers and absolute stupidity in the poster. If they can't even make a cool poster, what's that got to say about the movie itself?
So, I was expecting the worse, but surprisingly, thankfully, God-have-mercy-on-us-all-ly, "Sahara" isn't that bad. In fact, it's pretty damn entertaining. It isn't the greatest action movie of the year and it will probably be forgotten in a few years' time, but it's good, lighthearted fun with a decent plot, fun actors and some thrilling moments. It isn't without its flaws and cheesy moments, but it isn't the disaster I was expecting it to be (nor the disaster most audiences judged it to be, considering the low turnout at theaters opening weekend).
"Sahara" follows the continuing adventures of Dirk Pitt, Cussler's American version of James Bond. At least in the book he's rugged and vicious, but also enjoys a good laugh and always gets the girl (while his kick-ass Italian sidekick Al typically doesn't). Both Pitt and Al work for an almost-government organization called NUMA, which in real-life is a small shipwreck-hunting group run by Cussler and in the books a massive and authoritative marine agency. Though they are both technically treasure hunters, they were once Navy SEALS or Marines or something. Anyway, this story has Pitt looking for a Civil War ironclad that disappeared - yes, during the Civil War - and apparently made its way into Africa. More importantly, he has become entangled in a W.H.O. investigation looking into the source of a deadly toxic outbreak, lead by a beautiful doctor named Eva Rojas. One thing leads to another and they soon find themselves on the run from a corrupt dictator and on a mission to stop the outbreak from spreading across the world.
Probably the most debated part of the production was the casting. Pitt and his friends, the subject of at least a dozen bestselling novels, were quite difficult to cast, and my family, all Cussler fans, argued extensively about who the right choice would be. Ultimately, Matthew McConaughey was chosen for the role, and while he wouldn't have been my first choice, he ultimately was a good move on the part of the casting director. Though not wielding the star power he deserves, McConaughey handles ruggedness and humor with great balance; he's quite good for the role. Steve Zahn as the muscle-bound Italian sidekick doesn't make any sense, but as his own character he is great, delivering his typical sarcastic humor - though it would have been nice to see him kick a little more ass here and there. Penelope Cruz as the love interest also was a good choice, but she needed to be in a bikini for longer than the last minute of the film. William H. Macy also turns in a fine and funny supporting role.
Director Breck Eisner, who really hasn't done much in the way of any major theatrical releases, was the next question mark, but who too was a pleasant surprise. After the trailers made "Sahara" look like a direct-to-video action film I wasn't expecting much, but the movie is actually very well-filmed, with great scenery, pretty good special effects and a relatively realistic mood that puts it a level above many Hollywood action movies.
The movie isn't perfect though. While the action is fun, it isn't anything new, and those looking for really intense scenes should look elsewhere. I wouldn't go as far as call this an action-comedy, but Eisner definitely leans toward the comic side of events rather than the serious side. For instance, in one of the dumbest scenes of the movie, Pitt rigs a damaged airplane as a desert glider, but Eisner at least has fun with the stupidity by ending the scene with Pitt crashing the plane into the side of a gas station that's out in the middle of nowhere. Furthermore, those who haven't read the book might find the presence of a Civil War ironclad in the middle of the desert a bit goofy, but it was a semi-important aspect of the book that had to be kept in there.
That being said, I wouldn't have involved the ship as much as Eisner does. The third act is where "Sahara" really shows some trouble, as the movie really rears away from some of the bigger action scenes in the book and makes its own - namely by putting the climax inside the old ironside. A couple action scenes in the book are much more captivating than the ones in the movie - I really don't understand why they couldn't have been translated to the big screen.
"Sahara" is not without its problems, but it is a pleasant surprise for a big fan of Dirk Pitt novels. Sadly, this may be the end of the franchise already, but maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised again...
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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