`Sahara' is a lot of hot air


April 08, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Sahara doesn't waste time on introductions. It wastes time in other ways.

The first hour offers a frenzy of explosions, showdowns and exotic pow-wows as director Breck Eisner strains to set up the essentials of the first (and maybe last) big-screen adventure starring Matthew McConaughey as Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt. (Cussler wrote the original 700-page-plus novel.)

Pitt and his friend from childhood, Al Giordano (Steve Zahn), former Navy SEALs, now belong to the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA). While salvaging African antiquities, Pitt dreams of finding his prize trophy, a Confederate ironclad that broke through Union lines. Meanwhile, Dr. Ana Rojas (Penelope Cruz), working for the World Health Organization, seeks to uncover the nature and the cause of a deadly plague along the Niger River that leaves victims with eyeballs that look like marbles from hell.

Combine all this with a slick French industrialist (Lambert Wilson), a Malian warlord (Lennie James) and hordes of rebellious tribesmen and you've got a recipe for a stirring free-for-all. But Eisner and an entire backfield of screenwriters just let the ingredients spill out. In their rush to cut to the chase they actually make the film seem longer (and it's a 124-minute movie). In one annoying sequence, Pitt saves Rojas from assassins and the editing is so quick and chaotic you wonder why Pitt doesn't concentrate on the guy who's obviously the main thug - the one in the burnoose. This isn't action painting. It's action finger painting.

Only when all the forces converge on the Sahara does Eisner let the adventure simmer, get a tan, acquire some color and flavor. McConaughey, not an actor of terrific range, brings little more than low-key confidence to Pitt, a role that's part Indiana Jones and part James Bond. But he has enough hip gallantry to make you believe that Cruz's lithe medic would curl up with him.

And he absorbs some welcome wryness from Zahn's Giordano, who puts the kick back in sidekick. You fear the worst when Eisner uses Zahn to replay the old Dan Aykroyd falling-pants gag from Saturday Night Live. So it comes as a relief when he starts generating humor from his scruffy competence. None of his lines are hilarious, but his attitude is. When Pitt spits out his helter-skelter plans with hardboiled glibness, Giordano wins laughs by casually pleading, "Take me through that one again?"

The gags get better as they get slower: The best begins with these two guys unscrewing the back of a pickup truck while they're still chained to it and sliding off in the middle of the desert. And Sahara gets better as it goes along - not enough to warrant a trip to the multiplex, and not enough to mandate a sequel, but enough to make it an option if the only other choices when you get there are the sequels to Get Shorty and Miss Congeniality.


Starring Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn and Penelope Cruz

Directed by Breck Eisner

Released by Paramount

Rated PG-13

Time 124 minutes

Sun Score**

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