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Sahara’ is almost a hit, but screenwriting sinks the ship

Sean Sweany | Tuesday, April 12, 2005

James Bond, Indiana Jones and … Dirk Pitt? The producers of the new action movie “Sahara” would have you believe that Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) is the new name in adventure. While this is perhaps too bold a claim, director Breck Eisner – son of Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner – has created a respectable and worthy movie hero.”Sahara,” which is based on the 1992 Clive Cussler novel, follows Dirk Pitt, who is a mix of marine biologist, treasure hunter, Navy SEAL and suave secret agent. Pitt and sidekick Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) work for the National Underwater Marine Agency and decide to go on a treasure hunt in Africa for a lost Confederate Civil War ironclad ship full of gold. Along the way, Pitt saves the life of World Health Organization scientist Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz). He learns of Eva’s quest to discover the source of a plague ravishing Africa. Eventually, they discover they must search the African desert together to find what they are looking for and stop the evil team of a French millionaire and African tyrant from polluting the world’s water supply.If that sounds like a mouthful, it is. Along their journey, Pitt and crew engage in fights and chases in just about every mode of transportation possible, destroying each vehicle in the process.Directors most likely released this movie in the spring because it doesn’t quite have the ingredients for a huge summer blockbuster, but it’s close. McConaughey and Zahn have a great chemistry portraying lifelong friends who work well together and provide most of the humor in the movie. Cruz seems to take her role a little too seriously, and it shows in her relationships with other characters, even McConaughey. The real strength of this movie comes from the strong performances of the supporting cast.Zahn (Jack from “National Security”) plays the role of sidekick with the perfect amount of wit, cynicism and thick-headedness. William H. Macy makes an appearance as the gruff and resolute Admiral Sandecker who tries to perform his job as boss of Dirk and Al. Rainn Wilson, who is known for work in “Six Feet Under” and the U.S. version of “The Office,” plays the nerdy equipment man, Rudi Gunn. These actors make the most of their screen time and carry the movie through its slower parts.This film is Eisner’s first major directing effort. His directing career has primarily involved television commercials and miniseries, but he does a respectable job with “Sahara.” Most action movies use fairly simple cinematography, but Eisner manages to present a rather artful film. The opening credits sequence features a single shot that tracks around Pitt’s office, giving the audience a brief, informative tour of Dirk’s life. Eisner also uses wide shots well to display the stark beauty of the African desert.Where this movie really stumbles is the writing. In the opening credits, it’s hard not to notice that there are enough screenwriters to sink a real ironclad ship in the middle of the African desert, and sink it they do. The event happens and works well in the book, but the writers somehow manage to make this seem absurd in the film.Similarly, the rest of the plot seems ridiculous in the movie, along with much of the dialogue. Fans of the Clive Cussler book will likely be disappointed, simply because the limits of film cannot capture the magic of the book. All in all, however, this is a fun, smart, if slightly unrealistic, action film to get moviegoers ready for the summer season.