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Movie Review: 'Sahara'

Tribune Staff Reporter

2 stars (out of 4)

How many leaps of logic do you allow an action movie before that thin strand of suspended disbelief snaps?

In the case of "Sahara," based on the novel by Clive Cussler, not enough. Even if you buy Dirk Pitt's (Matthew McConaughey) obsessive search for a Civil War-era, iron-sided Confederate ship in Africa, you're not likely to believe his almost genetic predisposition for serendipitous escapes.

OK, OK. I can already see the letters and emails from Cussler and action-movie fans: "Aren't adventures supposed to be swashbuckling tales of death-defying feats?"

True enough. But action films can't be this consistently absurd, can't paint their heroes into such dangerous corners, from which only cocktails of luck and divine intervention can save them, over and over. It's a bad-faith bargain with the audience and bad storytelling.

Example: When Dirk and sidekick Al Giordino (an invaluable Steve Zahn) nearly die of exposure in the desert, they find a small wrecked airplane that they fashion into a wheeled wind-sail to carry them to safety. "Sahara" abounds with similar convenient, lazy plot turns, culminating in a finale so ridiculous, you'll either laugh or demand your money back.

(Cussler's first movie adaptation was 1980's "Raise the Titanic," which featured the equally improbable ascent of the doomed liner from the ocean floor via balloons.)

That's not to say "Sahara" can't be fun. McConaughey, who serves as an executive producer and spent years trying to fill Pitt's boots, manages to separate himself from all the other Indiana Jones clones out there ("The Librarian," etc.) with that disarming Southern drawl and a seashell necklace.

But in a role that's essentially a contemporary Indy-meets-MacGyver, there's not much breathing room. McConaughey champions an archetype—the invincible he-man adventurer—that's a tad dated in the modern action-movie world, in which heroes are allowed to be more fragile, more human. (And, let's face it, even Indy occasionally got the stuffing beat out of him.)

McConaughey does, however, share some versatile comic chemistry with Zahn, without whom "Sahara" would be a lesser movie, and flirts adequately with Penelope Cruz, who plays a health organization crusader in search of an African plague.

But Zahn, support from William H. Macy, a boatload of charm and a southern-rock soundtrack can't keep "Sahara's" teetering stack of improbabilities from toppling. Even the characters seem aware of the film's worn genre conventions, especially when Zahn says, straight-faced, "You get the girl, I'll get the bomb."

I've never read any of Cussler's many Dirk Pitt novels, so I couldn't tell you if "Sahara's" sloppy, connect-the-dots storyline comes from a blind fidelity to the novel or severe deviation from it. Certainly Cussler's own background as a novelist and explorer (he founded the National Underwater and Marine Agency, which champions discovery and preservation of shipwreck artifacts) adds to his mystique. But sadly, it doesn't inform this silver-screen expedition.


Directed by Breck Eisner; screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, John C. Richards and James V. Hart; based on the novel by Clive Cussler; production design by Allan Cameron; music by Clint Mansell; edited by Andrew MacRitchie; produced by Stephanie Austin, Howard Baldwin, Karen Elise Baldwin and Mace Neufeld. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:04. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for action violence). Dirk Pitt - Matthew McConaughey

Al Giordino - Steve Zahn

Eva Rojas - Penelope Cruz

Admiral James Sandecker - William H. Macy

General Kazim - Lennie James

Rudi Gunn - Rainn Wilson

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