228 – Sahara

I swear, when I first heard that Sahara, a movie based on the Dirk Pitt books by Clive Cussler, was finally coming out, I didn’t have very high expectations. I’ve read several of the books, and they always seem almost made for action movies, complete with larger-than-life (but one-dimensional) characters and wild, exotic locales. So I skipped watching this in the theater, and I now strongly regret that decision.

The basic plot is that Dirk Pitt, Director of Special Projects for the National Underwater and Marine Agency, thinks an old Civil War-era ironclad ship has somehow found its way to a river in Africa. At the same time, a luscious doctor with the World Health Organization discovers there’s been a viral outbreak in the same general area in Africa. Might these two meet up at some point during the movie?

Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) is part Superman, part daredevil, part Lothario, part Jacques Cousteau, and part Albert Einstein. Naturally, such a person would never exist in real life, but the character is so likeable – a devilish rogue, if you will – on paper that one forgives the transparency of his personality. He’s adept at solving mysteries large and small, but he can’t be without his trusty sidekick Al Giordino (Steve Zahn). Dirk and Al head to Mali, off the southwestern coast of Africa, because they think the old ironclad Texas somehow landed there; Dirk’s evidence is a single gold coin supposedly commissioned by Jefferson Davis. The two are joined by Dr. Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), the WHO doctor who is trying to trace the source of a deadly virus.

I won’t bore you with the plot, but it’s important to note that unlike the recent James Bond movies, the settings do not exist as simple travelogues (as in, “Wow, look! We’re in Finland! Now we’re in Australia! wNow we’re in Swaziland!” and so forth); instead, everything does make perfect logical sense. Also, the storyline isn’t so complicated as to be confusing; sometimes action movies overplot themselves to distract the viewer from its incoherence. The photography is fantastic, and even simple acts like Stuff Blowing Up look wonderful.

It’s not easy to read the books and picture Al Giordino as a pale, skinny guy instead of a stocky Italian, but Zahn was quite believable in the role. One might have figured that talent would take a back seat to whimsical casting on the order of stereotypical, stock characterizations. Uh-uh, one would be wrong. Zahn is so perfectly cast, he actually manages to walk off with scenes, no mean feat considering the special effects and the natural charisma of McConaughey. In the books, Al is just the kind of pal you want to be with in a tight situation, but he can also toss off the random bon mot. Zahn was able to do that and much more, a pleasant surprise.

Perhaps most importantly, McConaughey and Zahn had perfect chemistry together, and I could be convinced that they truly were lifelong buddies. Even better, both played off Cruz pretty well, too. I had a little trouble buying her as a smart doctor, but I can suspend my disbelief a little. It’s not as if she were Denise Richards in that James Bond movie I can’t remember because it wasn’t very good.

Often, action movies have logical holes you could drive a Hummer through, moments in which you actually stop and think, “Wait, that can’t happen… you cannot use snakes to pick a lock,” or something similar. If a movie makes you stop and think, and it’s not a thinking-man’s movie, then it’s failed somehow. Bombs are good, but let’s make ’em plausible bombs! At any rate, Sahara never does this. Everything ties in, but not obviously so. Sure, you know Eva and Dirk will meet cute and wind up together, but anyone reading any of the Dirk Pitt books knows this. He always gets the girl. And then the next book, he gets another. He’s so cool.

So, to sum up: Sahara is in the grand tradition of adventure movies like Raiders of the Last Ark, but unlike most pretenders to the Indiana Jones throne it’s frantically entertaining.

Sahara: ***

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