"IT'S NOT THE NEXT INDIANA JONES! GET OVER THAT COMPARISON!"
It’s impossible to recapture the magic of the Indiana Jones series, so filmmakers should just stop trying. The unimaginative quote whores can keep regurgitating their swag-bought praise of “Indiana Jones’ for the new millennium” or “…not since Raiders…” but real moviegoers and action-cravers know that stuff like National Treasure just doesn’t cut it. The Mummy movies found a goofy middle ground that not only acknowledged its silliness but winked off comparisons as nothing more than homage. Sahara is such an enigmatic piece of filmmaking that it never settles on a tone and whose downtime in-between the action is going to ease audiences into a gentle slumber.Dirk Pitt is the James Bond/Jack Ryan of adventure author Clive Cussler. As played by Matthew McConaughey, he’s a dashing and frightenenly tanned marine engineer with NUMA, the National Underwater and Marine Agency. Funded by retired Admiral James Sandecker (William H. Macy) and aided by longtime friend and Navy buddy, Al Giordino (Steve Zahn), Pitt has been searching for the remains of the last ironclad Civil War ship in his spare time. And from the opening tracking shot of his newspaper-infested domain, he seems a tad obsessed.
That’s only speculation though since Pitt comes off as he could be interested in anything at anytime. He’s not aloof, but shifts focus as soon as a new opportunity for adventure presents itself whether it be diving, research or rescuing sexy scientists with the World Health Organization. Penelope Cruz continues the long tradition of female sidekicks who wear glasses first and discover breasts later. Be sure to take a drink every time her character announces she’s from the WHO. Insert your own Tom Baker joke here.
After being saved by the Ursula Andress-cladded Pitt, Cruz’ Eva Rojas hitches a ride with the NUMA boys in order to trace the path of a mysterious plague wiping out sections of Africa. Could it have something to do with the self-appointed General (Lennie James) who “put the war in warlord” or the evil industrialist (Lambert Wilson) out to make a buck? Anything that might be clichéd about lost artifacts and buried Confederate Gold is still a welcome relief to the disease hunt that keeps threatening and finally overcomes our heroes to take part in. Both expeditions come off as so arbitrary that even the characters act like they needed to be reminded what their original goals were.
McConaughey and Zahn can certainly be considered a leg-up from the Richard Jordan-M. Emmet Walsh combo of Raise the Titanic, but something is still off with a chemistry that should come natural to these two. The screenplay by committee (Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer (of the year-plus delayed, A Sound of Thunder) and John C. Richards & James V. Hart) has eliminated wit as a go-to which is odd since McConaughey could charm the scales off a dead snake and was terrific as the gruff leader in the otherwise lackluster dragon tale, Reign of Fire. Zahn should just wear a shirt that reads “comic relief”, but I liked how his character isn’t just a goofball and doesn’t reluctantly get caught up in the action. He may crackwise but he takes charge, which isn’t often since the action sequences are few and far. They aren’t bad at all either, injecting the film with a needed shot of adrenaline after each half-hour stretch of monotony.What Sahara is missing most is a sense of joy. Where is the ecstasy of going on this adventure, escaping danger and unmasking the long buried mysteries of world history? The two major discoveries in the film are so brain-smackingly random that it would have been just as easy for them to lose their compass, close their eyes and point. Cussler fans should just give up the search now for the slave-manned gold mines and the Lincoln assassination connection, because they are nowhere to be found in the script. They should also give up the hope that Sahara is the latest answer to the popcorn adventure in the interim of Spielberg, Lucas and Ford finding time to make Part Four before Indiana Jones becomes just another ancient artifact himself.