Ushering in the new summer season with a lackluster bang — a crackle or a pop might be more appropriate — “Sahara” is hot, dirty and stitched together from at least three other recent films. But summer is the time for mindless explosions and pretty people, and “Sahara” packs fun into every frame — just try not to think about it too hard.
The plot is not so much a story as an excuse to get from one action scene to the next. Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) is obsessed with finding a ship from the Civil War. The old ironside goes by the nickname “Ship of Death,” and a mysterious plague seems to be emanating from its resting place somewhere in Mali. Al Giordino (Steve Zahn, “Saving Silverman”) is the comic relief sidekick, and Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz, “Vanilla Sky”) fills the role of feisty hot chick.
After helming the miniseries “Taken,” director Breck Eisner makes his first step up to big-budget features. If there’s any question as to why an outlandishly expensive studio venture was handed over to such an inexperienced director, the fact that Eisner happens to be the scion of Disney CEO Michael Eisner and his multimedia empire had, no doubt, a negligible role in the assignment. In any case, young Eisner is competent, if not exactly the second coming of Steven Spielberg. The film is suitably conceived and exciting enough to avoid tedium despite its length.
Part of the credit goes to the stars though. McConaughey manages to tone down his “Reign of Fire” persona just enough to construct an impressive and engaging hero. The shirtless scenes don’t hurt either. Zahn is handed more smug jokes and one-liners than any sidekick in recent memory, but he manages to come across sufficiently heroic to pull it off. And Cruz, well, she’s pretty. She avoids being as annoying as token babes in her position normally are, keeping her sweaty, bare-chested savior’s attitude in check.
The movie interlaces top-notch action sequences with stunning landscapes and laugh-out-loud comedy. That the plot relies heavily on the extreme luck and good timing of its protagonists is more a nod to the conventions of summer movies than a fault. But underneath it all, the movie’s too uninspired to be anything spectacular. Not only does it borrow heavily from hits like “The Mummy” and the “Indiana Jones” series, but it also takes from more recent tripe like “National Treasure.” Eisner and Clive Cussler, who penned the source material, are patently uninterested in creating something original. The movie plays like a salute to its genre; a keen audience member will have no problem envisioning each scene far before it takes place.
Does it matter? The plot is dumb and nonsensical, and the movie is an unremitting cliché. But sometimes it’s enough just to watch beautiful people in exotic places executing stunts and special effects. Despite its faults, “Sahara” delivers where it counts.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars