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Sahara

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/09/05 17:23:06

"As popcorn goes, this one's a value-size box."
3 stars (Just Average)

Comparisons to Indiana Jones are flying left and right, but Dirk Pitt leans more to the James Bond end of the action hero spectrum. Pitt is the star of a long-running series of adventure novels from Clive Cussler - if the name isn’t familiar to you, just picture those books your dad likes to read, those oversized thrillers that fill shelf space next to the Tom Clancy stuff. Despite a heavy list of credits, Cussler has only seen one of his books turned into a movie: 1980’s “Raise the Titanic,” which was so ill-received by the author that he has since put off Hollywood.

Now comes movie number two. “Sahara,” one of seventeen Pitt adventures (“Titanic” was another), has been made into a big budget popcorn extravaganza, with apparent hopes to turn the hero into the star of the next big action franchise. It turns out Cussler was equally disapproving of this adaptation attempt (to the point of lawsuit, according to the rumor mill), due to all the extreme changes and such, but Cussler fans should relax. Even if “Sahara” the movie shows little resemblance to “Sahara” the book, it still manages to work on its own merits. And that’s gotta count for something, right?

Cast in the leading role is Matthew McConaughey, with Steve Zahn in tow as Dirk’s sidekick Al Giordino. They’re treasure hunters of sorts, on the hunt for a lost ironclad ship from the Civil War, a ship, Dirk believes, that found its way across the Atlantic and into the rivers of Africa. Meanwhile, WHO rep Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz) is searching for the source of a mysterious disease that’s set to become an epidemic.

The plot here is less a streamlined story and more just an excuse to rocket our heroes from set piece to set piece. By the time we get to the part about the evil magnate and his top secret energy plant that may poison the planet’s water supply, we’re left wondering if we’re still watching the same movie that had Pitt and Company digging up clues related to a rare Confederate gold coin.

And yet, that’s part of the film’s charm. We honestly don’t know where the story will take us next. It’s so gleeful in its attempts to thrill that the issues of a slapdash script seem incidental. All we want is to see McConaughey, Cruz, and Zahn crack wise as they dodge bullets and leap out of the path of fireballs. If you were to request a popcorn movie that has more than its share of everything, “Sahara” would surely make the short list.

Luckily, its version of “everything” is of the good variety. Director Breck Eisner (yes, he’s Michael’s son) shows a solid knack for composing lighthearted action scenes that fly with ease. With the help of McConaughey and Zahn, both of whom bring a much welcome whip-smart comic timing to the picture, Eisner maintains a sense of gee-whiz fun throughout.

Which brings us back to Indiana Jones. Most critics are looking at the desert settings, the interplay with “the natives,” and the swashbuckling nature of Pitt’s actions, and they’re jumping to immediate Indy comparisons. But that only holds to a point; by the time the bigger picture is revealed, I couldn’t help thinking of 007 instead. “Sahara” has the basic features of a typical Bond flick: a slowly unraveling mystery, ever-changing exotic locales, a chance to save the world, over-the-top villains, a sexy heroine, big stunts and bigger explosions. Pitt’s boss, Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy), could even stand in for M.

Granted, it’s not a carbon copy (I doubt it would be as fun if it were). My Bond comparisons only go to show that Dirk Pitt is more than just some Indiana Jones wannabe. He’s a little bit of every action hero (heck, why not throw Jack Ryan into the mix?), but he’s also a character all his own. This is Cussler’s creation, and even if the movie shows little of the guy we met in the books, he’s still enough of his own man to stand out. If “Sahara” is successful enough, you can bet that Paramount will jump at the chance to kick off a whole franchise. Judging from the way this one effortlessly entertains, that would be one series I’d like to see. I had a blast here, and the closing credits left me thirsty for more.

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