The Dirk Side of the Moon
The battle that novelist Clive Cussler is waging against Sahara filmmakers has been well-publicized for some time now. But although I haven't read any of the best-selling author’s works, I don’t see what the fuss is all about. Sure, Paramount seems to be going out of its way to make the movie look like a National Treasure knock-off, probably hoping to ride the coattails of that film's surprise success, but I found watching Sahara to be a rather fun experience. It doesn't just rehash all the explosions and stuntwork we see in action movies on a regular basis; instead, it offers a few elements of its own -- including charismatic actors and gorgeous location shots -- thereby turning what could have been a dry dish into a tasty serving of cinematic adventure.
In Sahara, Matthew McConaughey brings to life Cussler’s seafaring scientist/adventurer, the one and only Dirk Pitt. Dirk’s latest obsession and quest fueled by NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency) involves an ironclad gunboat that went missing at the end of the Civil War. Rumored to be onboard is a rare coin once produced by the Confederacy, and once Dirk uncovers the coin in Lagos, off he goes, with the help of loyal, wisecracking assistant Al Giordino (Steve Zahn), to see if he can find the ship. As he embarks on his journey, though, Dirk ends up crossing paths with Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), a doctor from the World Health Organization investigating signs of a potential plague among the natives. It isn’t long before Dirk and Eva discover that their goals are related, and both must team up to fight common enemies, including a sneaky industrialist (Lambert Wilson) and a ruthless warlord (Lennie James).
Most people probably think they can tell what kind of a movie Sahara is going to be just by reading the plot or by hearing the name “Dirk Pitt,” a machismo-soaked moniker that more than likely helped inspire many of the joke names the “MST3K” guys came up with on the Space Mutiny episode (I was waiting for Dirk to be accompanied by his sidekick, Thick McRunfast). But viewers shouldn't let such preconceived ideas spoil their enjoyment of this film. Yes, Sahara is a big-budgeted slice of cheese, alright, but it knows when to take itself seriously and when to go nuts. Like a good jazz musician, it has the ability to differentiate between when it's the right time to play it straight and when to play its own riffs.
What separates Sahara from other similar genre entries is that it actually makes something special out of nifty little action scenes like the one where Dirk and Al use a crashed plane to go windsurfing on the dunes of the Sahara. Instead of rattling off his ingredient list, director Breck Eisner shows what he can do with what he has to work with. Eisner possesses the skill to take standard action set pieces and make them seem really cool all over again.
With a name like Dirk Pitt, you need a dude who can measure up to it, and McConaughey is just the hombre for the job. Tanned, chiseled, and with an attitude that suggest he’ll break out the bongos at any given moment, the Frailty actor gives an energetic and charismatic performance here. He’s no Indy Jones, mind you, but until Harrison Ford dons the fedora one more time, McConaughey’s Dirk Pitt does a decent job filling the position of Treasure-Seeking Hero. Steve Zahn seems perfectly suited for Al Giordino, a role tailor-made for Zahn’s charm and sarcastic persona. Although her role is a bit on the thin side, Penelope Cruz does fairly well as a concerned doctor whose quest to save West Africa from a plague involves falling in love with the hunky scientist looking for a Civil War gunboat in the Sahara Desert. Last but not least, the great character actor William H. Macy appears in a minor but nevertheless memorable turn as Admiral Sandecker, Dirk Pitt’s financial source.
Sahara is not a perfect film. It contains a few creaks in the plot here and there, the length could be shortened, and the bad guys try to do the same things other action heroes have stopped them from doing since the invention of cinema. Still, the film's unique personal humor and its rollicking sense of adventure go a long way toward taking the rust off this jalopy of a genre.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated "PG-13" for action violence.)
Review also posted at www.ajhakari.com.