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"The rhythm is gonna get me!
Fetch my bongos!"

© 2005, Paramount
All Rights Reserved

Treasure hunter Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) has been on a life-long search for the fabled remains of a Civil War battleship filled with gold. On business in Africa, Dirk gets wind of a chance to find the ship, bringing along his buddy Al (Steve Zahn) to help him retrieve the treasure. Along the way, Dirk and Al stumble upon a toxic waste dump site that is poisoning the water supply of the local African tribes, and is ultimately on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. Teaming up with a World Health Organization official (Penelope Cruz), Dirk and Al set off to stop the toxic bad guys (including Lambert Wilson, "The Matrix Reloaded"), while still hunting around for the elusive ship that nobody believes exists.

"Sahara" (IMDb listing) is adapted from the best-selling book by Clive Cussler, an author who knows a thing or two about suspension of disbelief and high adventure. "Sahara" the film tries to capture that feeling onto film, and the results might quickly remind the viewer of another adventure series: the ones starring a man named Indiana. The comparisons are easy, but they're undeniable. Instead of Nazis, we have African warlords. Instead of the Ark of the Covenant, Dirk Pitt is after a Civil War battleship filled with gold. Yet, if you must siphon off any inspiration from a film franchise for a template, Indiana Jones is the way to go.

"Sahara" was directed by Breck Eisner, son of Disney chief Michael. Gee, I wonder how he got this job ... anyway, this is Eisner's first big foray into blockbuster filmmaking, and he's been handed a tough genre. The objective of "Sahara" is to provide the audience with popcorn action set pieces (each one bigger than the last), a pace that never surrenders, and a strict, matinee definition of good vs. evil. The picture manages to accomplish all these small tasks proficiently enough over two hours. The plot is intricate, encompassing many characters, but Eisner handles it well; I can only assume oversimplifying Cussler's prose in the process. The success of "Sahara" is that it actually moves (as opposed to the sludgy, similar-in-tone "National Treasure"), at the same time delivering on the promise of sun-soaked, sand-caked thrills. While derivative of Spielberg, Eisner keeps the film light and pleasurable, and the film's golden desert locations provide ample opportunities for vividly crisp, bright photography that isn't seen much in action films. Eisner is clearly savoring his film's potential. And he's backed all the escapades with a fantastic theme-heavy score by Clint Mansell.

My only real complaint with Eisner is found in his editing choices. While he keeps his filmmaking clean and easy to follow for most of the picture, once the action heats to a boil, Eisner feels he must chop the sequences to incoherent bits to intensify the moment. Why MTV-up such a traditional adventure film? There's no answer. "Sahara" does just fine keeping the story straightforwardly arranged; Eisner's overactive edits only ruin the exhilarating effect of the action.

In the starring role as the dashing adventurer Dirk Pitt, Matthew McConaughey acquits himself nicely. Having already proven himself an actor that will go the extra mile, it's great to see his energy put toward an unflappable franchise character. McConaughey clearly relishes the chance to play the hero (his smile riding camels seems far too real), and the role fits him agreeably. He even manages to overpower Steve Zahn and his typical hack acting tendencies. While still playing the same slightly dim sidekick character he's been chasing his entire career, Zahn has a rare chance in "Sahara" to get in on the action, which mercifully shuts him up. The two actors are natural together and entertaining as the buddy treasure hunters. They share friendly chemistry that often holds the film together when Eisner can't quite find the right tone.

"Sahara" isn't exactly a prestigious Merchant-Ivory production, and it doesn't pretend to be. Meet it on its level of entertainment, and a good time is sure to be had.

Filmfodder Grade: B

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