Sahara

Sahara is based on a novel by popular author Clive Cussler, but to the untrained eye it plays like a wholesale rip-off of last year’s entertaining National Treasure, except with added complications and considerably less fun along the way. That the reality is, if anything, the other way around is all but irrelevant — Sahara comes second, and it’s vastly inferior. Under those conditions, it’s a rip-off if I damn well say it is.

To be fair, the movie begins with two down-the-middle strikes against it. Those are Penelope Cruz and Matthew McConaughey, two of my least favorite actors in Hollywood; the latter is essentially a(n) (even) more obnoxious Ben Affleck, while the former consistently exhibits the emotional range of a coconut. Even here, in a film that requires nothing of them beyond trite heroics and a banal love story, they come up short — they’re just unlikable, I think, though I suppose that could be because I don’t like them. Steve Zahn does his best in a sidekick role, though the movie inexplicably abandons him at one point, leaving us alone with Tweedledee and Tweedledum for the rest of the running time.

The movie does a serviceable job of setting up a gratifyingly campy, if typical, action-adventure plot — in the spirit of Cussler, I imagine, who names his lead character Dirk Pitt with a straight face — but the follow-through is sloppy. There are two major storylines: Pitt’s quest to find a fabled iron-clad Civil War battleship, and a mysterious plague that ravages Africa. While the film pursues these separately, it hums along just fine — there’s a very exciting boat chase, for example, and some creepy disease outbreak stuff in the vein of, well, Outbreak. The writing is repetitive, the filmmaking fairly bland, and the acting pretty much what you would expect, but I was happy to play along.

But then the stories are brought together in a really contrived, clumsy way, and the entirety of the movie falls to pieces. Even the action scenes seem to turn perfunctory, as if sensing a break in the pattern; the dialogue and plotting gets progressively more absurd, until characters are forced to exclaim things like “I’ll find the bomb, you get the girl!” After a particularly unlikely stunt, someone comments that “there’s no way that that should have worked,” and truer words have not been spoken.

The fundamental problem is that when push comes to shove, the pacing goes to hell. We lose the sense that each scene directly leads to and affects the next one; the action all runs together, and the movie ceases to be good storytelling. By the time our heroes have to fight off a fleet of tanks and helicopters from inside a buried Civil War gunship, we’ve long ceased caring. I can put up with some sloppiness in movies that are interesting, or skillful in other ways, but not in Sahara. Sorry.

Well, I take that back — Sahara could have gotten away with just about anything had it carried me along on a wave of energy and enthusiasm. National Treasure was utter nonsense, after all, but it had a sense of excitement that went beyond mere mayhem. It went about its silly plot with elegant, engaging professionalism; it was fast, polished and fun. Sahara is second-rate adventure.

 

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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