There is a legend of a treasure that claims all who seek it.
Adventure novelist Clive Cussler’s work has been enjoyed by millions for decades now, but has rarely made it to the big screen. 1980’s Raise the Titanic was the last major attempt, with mixed results. Now, in 2005, Cussler’s most well-loved hero hits the screen in a big-budget, fast-paced action romp.
Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey, EDtv) is a scuba diver/treasure hunter/good Samaritan currently in Africa searching for the impossible. He believes a Civil War battleship miraculously traveled the distance from Virginia to the Niger River 150 years ago. No one believes his crazy theory—except his sidekick Al (Steve Zahn, Happy Texas) and his financial backer (William H. Macy, Fargo).
Meanwhile, Eva (Penelope Cruz, Vanilla Sky) is a doctor with the World Health Organization, investigating a mysterious disease infecting the poor in certain parts of Africa. It’s not long before she upsets the wrong people and her life ends up in danger. While on the run she crosses paths with Dirk Pitt. Can you say, “unlikely allies?” Their combined quests put them at odds with a sinister general, leading to boat chases, knife fights, car chases, gun fights, helicopter chases, and enough explosions to fill an entire desert.
Sahara is clearly meant to be a throwback to the action movies of a simpler time. It evokes an era of big set-pieces and massive explosions; one that existed before tortured anti-heroes or gravity-defying kung fu. It’s also a fairly inoffensive actioner, with minimal swearing or sexual references. Although several nameless henchmen meet their maker, no blood is ever shown on screen. The tone is light, and slightly over-the-top. This will delight viewers who want an upbeat experience, but will frustrate those seeking a gritty tough-guy’s movie. Sure, several aspects of the plot veer toward the ludicrous, but there’s a sly wink to the audience throughout, which makes up for a lot.
This take on Cussler’s much-loved hero is cut from the Doc Savage/Buckaroo Banzai cloth. He’s a scientific genius, but he’s also got street smarts. He can take on any opponent in a fist fight, he can use any weapon with skill, and he can pilot any vehicle. He’s always got a wink and a smile on his face no matter how high the danger, and with just a look he can make any lady swoon. This might be a lot of fun, but it makes the character a little hard to relate to. We meet him in the midst of treasure hunting, with little reason given as to why he’s this amazing treasure hunter, or how he got to be this way. Early in the film, when he learns people might be in trouble, he immediately sets off to help them, without any explanation as to why he’s such a staunch do-gooder. He’s our hero, and we have no choice but to sit back and accept that. Cussler’s fans have spent many hours whining about differences between this Dirk and the one in the books, but McConaughey did dye his hair and wear contacts to be as much like the original character as he could. So the effort was made, at least.
Penelope Cruz does a decent enough job, even if she doesn’t have the best chemistry with McConaughey. But then, her character is on hand either to deliver exposition about the deadly disease, or to look frightened as the stakes get higher and higher. Steve Zahn is meant to be our comic relief, but he actually downplays the laughs and sticks to the action heroics. This is a smart move on his part, as the movie is lighthearted enough without an all-out clown character constantly goofing off in front of the camera. William H. Macy is appropriately stately as a former admiral-turned-philanthropist, and the always excellent Delroy Lindo (Ransom) shows up in a small role as a CIA agent. As our villains, Lennie James (24 Hour Party People) and Lambert Wilson (The Matrix Reloaded) get to perfect their sinister sneer, but they will hardly join the list of cinema history’s all-time greatest baddies.
There’s another important character in the film: the action. Director Breck Eisner (Taken) is clearly comfortable handling the big set-pieces. The movie really comes to life when the bullets and the debris start flying. Yes, there are explosions galore, but these are great, big, pretty explosions. Like so many recent action films, the fight choreography is sometimes lost to the viewer thanks to overly shaky hand-held camera work, but the problem is not as glaring here as it is in some other movies. Cinematography is solid overall, making the most of the desert setting, with almost every scene bathed in golden sunlight bouncing off orange dunes.
It’s not exactly what you’d call a “smart” movie, is it? There are dozens of little nit-picks one could make about the plot. A total of four screenwriters are credited here, and it shows, with a mishmash of ideas and action beats all thrown together in one big, noisy mix. The movie is a fun ride, but it won’t inspire many thought-provoking debates afterward.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer here is top notch, just as we should expect from a new release. Colors are bright and vivid, and no flaws are evident. The 5.1 sound is appropriately booming, although the classic rock soundtrack overpowers the actors’ voices in one or two scenes. There are two commentaries—one with director Eisner, and the second with Eisner and McConaughey, who also was an executive producer on the film. The two tracks repeat a lot of the same information, but are good listens for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. Eisner leans heavily towards discussing the technical side of things, elaborating on just how much time and expense went into simple items such as close-up shots or the opening credits.
The two featurettes are good ones, covering various aspects of the production, such as dealing with violent sandstorms while filming and the amount of detail poured into the storyboards and animatics. The “Cast and Crew Wrap Film” goes even farther behind the scenes, showing all the minor necessities of a film set that most people never think about, such as a parking lot full of trucks delivering drinking water to hundreds of thirsty crew members working in the desert. The four deleted scenes, with optional commentary by Eisner and McConaughey, add a few extra details and laughs, but they would have slowed down the movie far too much. Finally, the disc includes a handful of previews for upcoming Paramount movies and DVDs. For a studio with a reputation for stiffing fans when it comes to extras, Paramount has done a stellar job this time around.
Trivia time: Actor Lambert Wilson also appeared in the 1983 film Sahara starring Brooke Shields. This must’ve been like coming home for him.
So for action movie lovers, this one’s an excellent rental and a decent purchase. By now, all the franchise-minded suits at Paramount are wondering if I enjoyed the film enough to see a sequel. I’d say yes, just as long as they’re not afraid to humanize the hero a little more.