Saddled with more industry/celebrity baggage than a high-class safari voyage, “Sahara” is a rousing and only occasionally ridiculous adventure yarn that craftily updates and condenses author Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt thriller to assume that auds actually know something about Africa and the global environment. Pitt’s slightly Quixotic quest for a missing Confederate ironclad ship intersects with a race to stop a toxic catastrophe in West and Saharan Africa — to say nothing of evil Malian warlords, nasty French corporate thieves and a U.N. doctor full of derring-do — and the combination points to more promising B.O. in the U.S. and abroad than might have been expected.
The real test will be if the independently financed $100 million production draws numbers that compel Dirk Pitt sequels, even though there’s nothing in pic’s denouement that contains the built-in expectations of another episode. The first test has already been passed: Whether there’s enough onscreen to make one forget that the director is Breck (son of Michael) Eisner, in his feature debut; that Cussler has taken the producers to court claiming that an unauthorized version of the script was lensed; that there’s no way to condense Cussler’s massive 700-page-plus tome into two hours; and that co-stars Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz fell in love on the set.
None of this matters, it turns out, since the adaptation of the novel briskly and wittily brings the action and characters together and makes African politics and social conditions a very real backdrop for antics that make Pitt (McConaughey) a younger-generation Indiana Jones. Even more encouraging, as father Michael’s exec star is fading, Breck Eisner shows himself to be a solid helmer of complex and beautifully staged action sequences with a sure ear for character interplay and an exact eye for glorious widescreen framing with nods to images from “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Prelude during the 1865 Union siege of Richmond, Va., briefly but explosively traces how the last remaining Confederate ironclad, the Texas, managed to slip beyond Northern cannons on the James River. Swift transitions between this fine set piece, a title sequence that neatly establishes Dirk’s work as a treasure hunter and his lifelong friendship with Al Giordano (Steve Zahn) and a swooping camera entry into Lagos, Nigeria, indicate this is a movie on a mission.
In Lagos, World Health Organization doc Ana Rojas (Cruz) and assistant Frank (Glynn Turman) are hunting for the source of what appears to be a plague breakout somewhere along the Niger River. She is prey herself, as a hooded man clearly wants her dead, until Dirk comes to the rescue in an effectively dizzying scene that avoids the meet-cute cliches. Ana finds herself aboard a vessel commanded by Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy) and operated by the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA), but Dirk’s the star of the ship, proudly salvaging an ancient Nigerian reliquary.
Within minutes, Ana has bonded with Dirk, shady corporate sponsor Yves Massarde has made his presence felt, Al has shown why he’s never going to be the guy who gets the girl and a gold Confederate coin has suddenly appeared and spurred Dirk into action. Convinced that the coin’s presence in West Africa means the Texas must be near, Dirk commands one of the admiral’s spiffy speedboats and takes Al and nerdy cohort Rudi (Rainn Wilson) along for the ride.
Mechanically, “Sahara” is as sleek as the admiral’s boat, hurtling along from one expertly shot (by Seamus McGarvey) and edited (by Andrew MacRitchie) action set piece to another, with just enough time-outs for brief but suitable character developments and insights to generate a strong sense of urgency to the heroes’ efforts. Unfortunately, Cussler’s nagging habit for having the white man rescue the black man overwhelms the story for a long stretch. Balancing the gravitas of a story about the dire ecological threat of toxic waste is the light and frolicsome banter and near-escapes enjoyed by Dirk and Al, whose usual greeting before the action starts is the disarming “Hi! How ya doin’?” McConaughey and Zahn work like a fine double-play combination, the star regularly stepping back so the sidekick can have his moment. Surprisingly (especially for fans of the lovebirds), McConaughey and Cruz rarely have a quiet moment together and never steam up the lens in this PG-13 outing, playing characters driven to do their job first and fool around later.
Firmly slated as Hollywood’s first choice for Euro-baddies, Wilson actually expresses shock at the eco-havoc his greed could unleash, thinking all along that he could generate solar power by burning the mucky waste and make money at the same time.
He’s a bad man with good intentions, which is more than can normally be expected from a popcorn programmer, just as it is to see Africans rid themselves of one of their worst. It’s fair to expect ultra-pro production values that the pic packs, but to see Africa taken even halfway seriously on the bigscreen is a real thrill.