Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan


Posted by CinemaPsycho on April 12, 2005

Directed by Breck Eisner/Screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer, John C. Richards, James V. Hart, based on a novel by Clive Cussler/starring Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, Rainn Wilson, Delroy Lindo, William H. Macy/Paramount Pictures – Bristol Bay Productions

Two treasure hunters searching for a lost Civil War ship get mixed up with a doctor trying to help contain an African plague. Fights, chases and explosions ensue.

I was in a pretty good mood the day I saw this, because I found out that a certain favorite TV show of mine had been renewed for a second season (and that’s the last time I bring it up, I swear). So I was practically walking on UPN sunshine and was even willing to kick a few bucks Paramount’s way, even for a film that was directed by Michael Eisner’s son and financed by the head of Regal Cinemas. My review may be slightly charitable, but even with all that goodwill, I can’t fully recommend Sahara.

I really wanted to like this thing too. It’s been awhile since there’s been a really good old-fashioned action-adventure movie like this. And it looks like it’s still going to be awhile.

Sahara is one of those movies that pretty much fade from memory as soon as the closing credits start to roll. As you stroll out of the theater, you remember that a lot of stuff happened, but damn if you can explain it in any kind of coherent form. A lot of things got blown up, there were a few funny lines and several character actors you really liked in other movies appeared in it. You can vaguely recall being mildly entertained by it, but by the time you get home, it’s a struggle to remember any details. Other than the fact that Penelope Cruz looked incredibly hot. That’s a little tough to forget.

Wooderson – I mean, McConaughey plays the unfortunately named Dirk Pitt, a treasure hunter searching for a lost Civil War battleship. Oh, we’ve covered that already. Moving on. Zahn plays his loyal sidekick, the unfortunately named Al Giordino, and pretty much acts like you expect Steve Zahn to act. Plus he looks nothing like an Al Giordino should conceivably look, but I guess those are the names in the novel, so they had to use them. The film will probably outrage the fans of the novel 99 different ways anyway, so I don’t see how it matters, but whatever.

Somehow in the process of searching for this battleship, Dirk and Al get enlisted to take two World Health Organization doctors to Mali (geez, I’m surprised I remembered that much), including Eva Rojas (Cruz), who quickly becomes enlisted as Dirk’s love interest. After all, they’re the two most physically attractive people in the movie, what do you expect? She’s not going to get the hots for William H. Macy, although that might have made for a more interesting movie.

Anyway, it turns out there’s a plague going on that traces back to Mali, and for some reason the crooked government is trying to cover it up. One would think it would be difficult to contain something like that – all somebody has to do is call CNN and it’s all over the news. There I go, using my brain again. Silly me. Naturally, the government’s hired goons don’t want Eva and company to spill the beans, so they try to kill her, and Dirk has to save her, blah blah blah. Then Dirk and Al’s requisite techie-geek sidekick (would he be the Assistant Sidekick?), played by Wilson (Arthur from Six Feet Under), figures out that the plague will eventually spread to North America, so it really has to be stopped. I mean, nothing’s important unless it’s about to happen to us, right? But of course the American Embassy people don’t believe him, because the American Embassy never believes anybody in movies like this. If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that the American Embassy will never be much help to anyone who’s in trouble in a foreign country. I can’t wait until somebody in one of these movies finally says, “don’t bother going to the American Embassy, they’re useless.”

Then there’s a bunch of stuff about toxic waste and solar panels and Delroy Lindo shows up as a CIA guy who tells Macy that the government can’t do anything to help, then of course he does something to help. There’s also a corrupt French businessman who’s in cahoots with the corrupt Mali chieftain, or warlord, or whatever he is. It seems like there’s always a corrupt French businessman, or German or Swedish or Canadian or what have you. This is where my mind started to wander, so forgive me if none of this makes any particular sense. Trust me, it doesn’t in the movie either.

So right at the moment where you start to wonder, “what does all this have to do with a lost Civil War battleship?” wait about half an hour and you’ll finally discover that the source of the plague comes from the same place the battleship is grounded! Go figure. Just when you might have thought that Dirk and Al could discover that there are more important things in the world than running around searching for lost treasure, the movie decides to reward them for aiding the world’s sexiest humanitarian. Because stopping a plague just isn’t worth it unless there’s gold involved, right?

Another curious thing about this flick is how much ‘70’s rock is on the soundtrack, including such overplayed gems as “We’re an American Band”, “Sweet Home Alabama” and of course, “Magic Carpet Ride.” I’m sure if they had time to work in “Slow Ride” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hootchie-Koo”, they would have. I guess this is supposed to add to the movie’s loosey-goosey, good-times vibe, but frankly it just makes the whole enterprise seem like it’s stuck in 1975. Seriously, I grew up on these songs, and it’s time to give them a rest already. Why do they always pick the songs that everyone is sick to death of? Was this movie partially financed by Clear Channel or something? And what the hell do these tunes have to do with anything that happens in this movie? Think about it – they’re in the middle of an exotic African country, and they’re playing “Sweet Home Alabama”? That’s like taking a trip to Paris just to eat dinner at McDonalds. I don’t get it. The soundtrack should be released by K-Tel exclusively on 8-track tapes, under the name Classic Gold. (And if anybody under the age of 35 actually gets that joke, you should be writing for That ‘70’s Show. They need you.)

The real problem with Sahara is its inability to find a consistent tone. The movie keeps trying to juxtapose the jokey Hope-and-Crosby antics of Dirk and Al with the deadly seriousness of Eva’s mission. It’s fun for awhile, then it’s serious for awhile, then – hey, are we supposed to be having fun here or not? I’m sorry, but African plagues, government corruption and toxic waste do not make for rollicking good times. It’s like Beyond Borders rewritten as a Cheech and Chong comedy. I can appreciate that they were trying to add some gravity to the situation, but the result is kinda like putting Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Ethiopia. “Oops – what a predicament we’re in now! When’s dinner time?” This is apparently a movie for those select few who thought Hotel Rwanda would’ve been better with some slapstick and stunts. What were they thinking?

But I’m probably making Sahara sound worse than it actually is. Truthfully, if you can ignore the geopolitical implications of the plot (as the filmmakers apparently did), this isn’t a completely unpleasant way to spend a couple of hours. The filmmakers obviously wish they were making an Indiana Jones movie, that’s plain to see. But while Eisner seems a competent enough director, his action scenes lack the kind of wild inspiration and creativity that the Indy and Bond movies have. Those movies are compulsively rewatchable not just because they’re chock-full of action, but because of the awe-inspiring inventiveness of their action scenes. Eisner seems content to simply recycle set pieces from better movies just to keep things moving along. There’s nothing here that we haven’t seen countless times before, or that doesn’t feel like we’ve seen it countless times before. Honestly, if I see one more movie where the hero is hanging by his fingers off the edge of a tall building, and the villain walks over and steps on them…I will have officially seen that cliché 10 million times. And that’s about 9 million times too many.

Of course the plot is ridiculous – you come to expect that from this kind of movie. The problem is that it’s not particularly compelling. McConaughey and Zahn are likable, talented actors (no, really), and Cruz is extremely watchable. But too often they seem like actors in search of characters in search of a movie. I’ve never read any of the Dirk Pitt novels, but I really can’t imagine that they read the way this movie plays. Dirk and Al have a nice camaraderie going, but they’re a little bit too smirky and in-jokey for the material. At any point you expect McConaughey to break out the bongos and a joint for each of the cast members. They’re enjoyable enough to watch – they just seem like they belong in a completely different movie. Maybe if the script had focused on the treasure-hunting aspects (which is what whoever cut the trailers and TV ads seem to think this thing is about), the movie would have turned out to be the fun, free-spirited lark of an adventure story that these characters merit. I can’t say I would mind seeing Dirk and Al in more adventures – just let them do what they do, and don’t try to make them something they’re not.

It’s not that Sahara isn’t watchable enough, because it is. It just doesn’t add up to much more than that. It’s a shame really, because it seems like they had all the right ingredients for a fun flick here. They just forgot to include the fun.

**1/2 4/12/05

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