Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/03/07 22:06:10

"Amiable lightweight adventure."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The sight of Steve Zahn, of all people, posing on the poster of a $130 million adventure movie pleases me more than I can say. You might remember Zahn as the hapless stoner in 'Out of Sight,' or any number of other quirky, harmless oafs. He's the sidekick in 'Sahara,' not the hero, but it's still a kick to see him running around being heroic (even if he keeps losing his hat) or handling firearms as if he's actually seen one before.

The whole movie is a kick, actually. Along with 2004's National Treasure, it may be the start of a promising new trend of family-friendly adventure flicks -- popcorn movies that don't wallow in violence and degradation in order to secure their buzz. (Not that there's anything wrong with violence and degradation in the right hands, of course -- Sin City is still there for us cheerful members of the Culture of Death.)

Sahara is an adaptation of one of the five hundred or so Dirk Pitt novels by Clive Cussler, who has created a merry band of treasure hunters who operate outside the government, bankrolled by a fat-walleted retired admiral (played here by William H. Macy, a thick stogie forever bisecting his face). Matthew McConaughey plays Dirk, perhaps flouting the Paramount marketing division, who might've liked the ads to read "Brad Pitt is Dirk Pitt." McConaughey, who has seemed swamped and overly serious in large-scale films before (I tried and failed to locate his personality in U-571), ambles genially into this one with an untroubled and almost hippie-like vibe, a useful and amusing angle on a hero with a military background. Dirk and his best buddy Al Giordino (Zahn) travel the globe in search of treasure, and, y'know, it's nice to think of Americans going overseas with an appetite for antiquities and not destruction.

Dirk suspects that a Civil War ironclad ship may have wound up somewhere in West Africa. Don't even ask. Don't ask about most things in Sahara, including how a World Health Organization doctor (Penelope Cruz) gets involved, and how a plague she's researching may be connected to that old ship, and how nobody has found the ship when all you have to do to stumble across important clues is to kick a soccer ball into the right building. The movie has about as much to do with reality as Sin City does, though this film's brand of fun prospers in sunshine and warm air, and benefits from a well-selected playlist of classic '70s rock on the soundtrack. (McConaughey and Zahn are both veterans of Richard Linklater films, and every so often their exploits here, wedded to songs like "We're an American Band," helped me imagine what a big-budget desert adventure might look like in the hands of the director of Dazed and Confused.)

This is the feature debut of Breck Eisner, whose father is Disney head Michael Eisner. Appropriately for someone who seems to have been named after a shampoo, the younger Eisner delivers a clean and bubbly piece of work, with the action set-pieces striving for laughs more often than tension. Penelope Cruz sometimes seems to be in another movie, a more serious one where she has to look at icky dead bodies and put on her sad face, but the boys in the film have their share of jostling fun. How Dirk and Al get out of being chained to the bed of a truck is amusingly ingenious, as is what they do with a plane wreck they find in the desert. McConaughey and Zahn have a laid-back, good-ol'-boy rapport that slides almost imperceptibly into tough professionalism. Sometimes you want heroes you can worry about, because it raises the stakes and the tension, and sometimes you want heroes you don't have to worry about because they have enough smarts and good humor to get through any situation. Dirk and Al are decidedly in the second category.

Sahara is the kind of movie that ends with helicopters and giant mirrors and flying cannonballs, yet finds room for a subtle comeuppance involving a glass of water. No one should be surprised that the heroes (and heroine) make it through to the end credits, if only because Paramount wants another franchise should Sahara's profits justify more movies. I have a quibble with the ending: We see a happily-ever-after scene of McConaughey and Cruz (now an item in real life) chilling out on a beach, but there's no Steve Zahn in sight. What did Al do with his share of the treasure? Did he buy more hats to replace the ones he lost? It seems a glaring omission.

Regardless, I'm rooting for 'Sahara' to do well and spawn sequels, just so we can see Steve Zahn on the posters.

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