In May of 2001, while covering the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore, I attended a seminar on the challenges of adapting books into movies. One of the panelists was James V. Hart, a noted Hollywood writer of such films as Hook, Tuck Everlasting, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Hart was in the midst of adapting Clive Cussler’s “Sahara” and he showed the crowd a copy of his paperback, which was stuffed with Post-Its on which he had scribbled notes. It was an interesting visual because it neatly conveyed how hard it must be to whittle down a thick novel into a much thinner screenplay without losing sight of story or characterization. One of the first things I noticed upon seeing the big screen Sahara is that Hart is one of four credited writers, which means that he was not the only one who took a crack at the material. Here’s another way the point is driven home: despite at least four writers working on the script over the past four years, Sahara is still a great big mess. There’s no doubt that sitting down with the book would be vastly more entertaining than sitting through the movie.
Matthew McConaughey stars as adventurer Dirk Pitt, who has long believed that an ironclad ship from the Civil War crossed the ocean and is now buried somewhere in the African desert. When he stumbles upon a clue that vaguely supports his theory, Pitt convinces retired Navy Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy) to loan him a boat so that he can follow the trail. Accompanying him is longtime colleague Al Giordino (Steve Zahn), a bumbling wiseguy.
As they make their way across the desert, Pitt and crew meet Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), a World Health Organization doctor who is trying to find the source of a plague that is spreading across Mali. Naturally, his quest and hers lead in the same direction so they pool their resources. Although this seems natural in terms of allowing McConaughey and Cruz to hook up, it ultimately waters down both plot threads to the point where everything that happens seems to be arbitrary. The villain of the piece is Yves Massarde (Lambert Wilson), a personality-deficient businessman who may somehow be responsible for polluting the local water system, thereby causing the plague. He tries to stop Eva – and therefore Pitt – from discovering the truth. This involves sending out large armies of soldiers who carry machine guns, drive boats, and fly armed helicopters.
I have not read Clive Cussler’s book, so I can’t comment on its tone; however, Sahara (the movie) imagines itself as a lite version of the Indiana Jones pictures. Dirk Pitt is the daring swashbuckler who escapes danger at every turn and romances the beautiful heroine. That’s all well and good, but Matthew McConaughey is badly miscast in such a role. The actor lacks the gravity required for this approach to the character. In his hands, Dirk Pitt comes off like a good old boy from Texas who might enjoy slamming back a few beers after a day of dangerous treasure hunting. Even in the most potentially deadly of situations – hanging by one hand from the top of a tower, for instance – Pitt seems like he’s participating in a drunken fraternity stunt during spring break. Classic heroes, like Indiana Jones or James Bond, radiate a certain intelligence; they know when they’re in a dangerous situation, even if they’re reasonably sure they can escape. Their recognition of, and respect for, imminent danger is what makes us believe in their ability to dodge it. Dirk Pitt never demonstrates that quality in the film. He appears to be so laid back and unfazed about everything that the threat of death doesn’t ring true.
That is not to say that McConaughey is unlikable; he’s just not right for the part. The other cast members are right for their parts, but don’t have much to work with. Steve Zahn tackles his umpteenth wisecracking sidekick role, while Penelope Cruz has little to do except stand around and look beautiful (not a stretch) even though her character is supposed to be a pretty brilliant medical researcher. Lambert Wilson captures that generic Eurotrash feel for the bad guy, but hasn’t this villain been done to death?
I could have lived with flat characters, since most big-budget action movies these days have them. My biggest problem with Sahara is that it’s just too silly. And that comes from a person who generally likes a little silliness. The action/adventure scenes go so far over the top that there’s no suspense. After all, how can something be exciting when it’s so obviously implausible? Consider the scene in which Pitt and crew blow up a boat using a cigar and some lighter fluid; magically they time the homemade contraption to explode at the exact second when it passes an enemy boat. Or how about the sequence in which Pitt and Eva discover a giant solar energy plant in the middle of the desert? In the first shot, they’re on a train leading to the facility’s entrance; in the next, they’re monitoring everything from some piping deep within the building’s bowels. Uh, how did they get in there without being noticed?
I only wish I could find the words to describe the silliness of the moment when Pitt and Al – while stranded in the middle of the desert – find the shell of an old plane that has crashed. Somehow they get the thing back on its wheels and use it to windsurf across the desert. Don’t get me wrong: going over the top is common in action movies, but if you go too far, the audience just doesn’t buy it anymore. (Or maybe they do – I thought the same thing about National Treasure only to watch it go on to become a major hit.)
There are little moments here and there that perk Sahara up. I liked the supporting performances from William H. Macy and Delroy Lindo (whose function is best left unrevealed). I will also acknowledge that director Breck Eisner – son of Disney chief Michael Eisner – pumps a lot of energy into the picture. These things are not enough, though. To really pull off this kind of movie, the audience has to be left breathless. We have to feel as though we’re being shot at too, or that we’re hanging off the edge of the cliff with the hero. We have to believe that the danger is real and the hero is cunning enough to lead us through it. There has to be a lot more than just fancy stunt work and loud explosions. Sahara has lots of sound and fury trying to cover up for a hopelessly meandering story and a dull hero.
( 1/2 out of four)
Sahara is rated PG-13 for action violence. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.
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