Dir. Breck Eisner, 2005, USA/Spain, 124 mins
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, Delroy Lindo, William H. Macy
Review by Martyn Bamber
Although clearly inspired by the James Bond and Indiana Jones films, Sahara feels closer in spirit to the Mummy films starring Brendan Frasier and more recently, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), which evoke the classic films of Bond and Jones without really imprinting their own identity on the story, or radically overhauling the cliffhanger-type adventure film. Still, cinemagoers who may be jaded by the many highly touted, big budget new releases over the last few months (particularly comic book adaptations, remakes and sequels that are packed to the rafters with unconvincing CGI) might find this old school adventure film both a comfortable reminder of classic adventure films and a refreshing change from slick new fantasy films.
The story involves World Health Organisation worker, Dr. Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), who discovers a deadly virus in Africa. Ambushed by unknown assailants, she is rescued by Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey), a treasure hunter and explorer, who is working nearby on a salvage mission. While Eva is determined to uncover the mystery of the virus, Dirk is involved in a mystery of his own, involving a rare coin and a missing battleship from the American Civil War. Although Dirk and Eva part ways to investigate their separate mysteries, it’s not too long before their paths cross again. Dirk and Eva, along with Dirk’s best friend, Al (Steve Zahn), are soon drawn into a thrilling adventure that connects the battleship with the virus, but it’s an adventure that could result in deadly consequences for them and countless others.
With an intriguing plot, appealing actors and plenty of action sequences, all the elements are in place for a good old fashioned adventure, and now and again the film takes flight. However, the script doesn’t provide enough witty lines for the actors to get their teeth into. McConaughey and Zahn should be a great double act, effortlessly trading quips and barbs amidst the pyrotechnics that frequently explode around them. However, while their banter does raise an occasionally laugh, the script frequently gives them very little material to work with. The rest of the cast are equally game and throw themselves into the fray with zest, but they never seem to have much to work with. Ultimately, it’s Zahn who steals the show with some throwaway lines and well-timed shtick dotted about here and there.
Breck Eisner’s direction is almost defiantly old school, with a focus on narrative and very few self-conscious camera tricks. He also manages to sprinkle the action scenes with humour without having the jokes undermine the sense of danger that the characters are in. In one sequence, Dirk and Al get a fancy speedboat to play with, courtesy of their boss, Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy), essaying what’s essentially the ‘M’ role from the Bond movies. Dirk and Al act two laid back surfer dudes who’ve been given the keys to a Ferrari, who’ve then stumbled into the middle of an action sequence, where they’re being chased down a river by villains in speedboats. Watching Dirk and Al comment on the predicament they’re in, and then improvise their way out of trouble, kicks the film into high gear after a relatively low key beginning. Later in the film, Eisner delivers some more exciting, well-staged action scenes, including a sequence that features an out of control helicopter, a vicious henchman, some hidden explosives and a vast array of solar panels.
One interesting point to note is that the US government aren’t wholeheartedly endorsed by the film, which adopts a tone of scepticism, but not cynicism, towards the powers that be. But in relation to this, one moment involving some ‘poetic justice’ comes across as callous, however much this justice is seemingly deserved. This moment also sticks out like a sore thumb in a film that’s walked the line between flippant and semi-serious throughout its running time. While Sahara is frequently thrilling and amusing, it often feels like a lot dry run to see whether a franchise can be woven out of the fabric that’s here. There’s a tentative feel to the film, as if to deviate from the long-established James Bond or Indiana Jones template may alienate a potential thrill-seeking audience who want a bog standard adventure film and nothing more, and so threaten the possibility of more chapters being made. If Dirk and co. are to return for more instalments, let’s hope the next adventure gives the actors more to do with their characters and takes a few more risks with the formula.