Matt McConaughey channels Indy for the Pepsi generation. Shows promise, but must try harder.
Not that you can hear the sound of Hollywood trying to kick-start a franchise from miles away or anything, but when the opening credits of Sahara announce it as "a Clive Cussler 'Dirk Pitt' adventure", the more cynical among us may be forgiven for allowing a slightly derisory snort to escape from our nasal cavities. Would that be "a" as in "the first of several"? Still, as much as one suspects the suits behind the shoots may be eyeing up projected future returns for Sahara 3 already, you have to admit that with Indy 4 slipping ever further from the grasp of our wishlists there's arguably enough room on the schedule for some escapist action and adventure.
Enter then Mathew McConaughey; long-time La La Land underachiever with just the right toned physique, lady appeal, recognisable name and, crucially, B-list price tag needed to float such a raucous little number without the kind of budget names like Spielberg and Ford can attract. Joining his Dirk Pitt for a spot of latter-day derring do are Steve Zahn as hetero life mate and fellow ex-Navy SEAL/treasure hunter Al Giordino, and the ever-radiant Penelope Cruz as World Health Organisation missionary Eva Rojas. Chuck in support from such recognisable names as William H. Macy and Delroy Lindo (while ignoring the presence of Brit "favourite" Lennie James as, I shit you not, an African Warlord), and one has to admit there's probably not a lot to dismiss about the casting.
Given that Indy pretty much covered the whole comic book Nazi thing, and today's de facto "generic terrorism" threat is perhaps a little overbearing for such family fare, Sahara reverts pretty much by default to the only other enemy of mankind anybody gives much of a hoot about these days; eco-baddies. Following the trail of a Confederate warship rumoured to have made a post-Civil War trip to Africa with a hold full of gold, Pitt and Giordino happen upon WHO representative Rojas as she investigates mysterious cases of poisoning in Lagos. It's not long before the forces of an evil warlord take an insidious interest in her presence, so with bullets flying and quests converging the trio join forces to both unearth the source of some nasty river pollution and hopefully locate the sand-entombed Ironclad of legend. Via a string of fantastical set-pieces, naturally.
While it all sounds suitably nonsensical, Sahara does admittedly make a fair stab at the old "suspension of disbelief" routine, and despite it's many flights of fancy director Breck Eisner does an admirable job of, in the parlance of our times, keeping it real. There's certainly nothing here more fantastical than Jones has to offer (the very fact nobody manages to outwit hordes of rabid gunmen with only a whip and a wisecrack means Sahara probably scores one over it's mentor in the reality stakes), although this is a movie with a slight identity crisis in that the second hour sees the focus switch to a bizarrely Bond-like set-up involving a master criminal hiding out in a hazardous waste facility masquerading as a solar energy plant. "Eh?" I hear you mutter.
Fear not. Eisner wisely acknowledges the script's numerous inadequacies and focuses instead on the brief-but-satisfying setpieces, and better still the dynamic between his daring duo. As capable as McConaughey proves in his role it's Zahn who offers the most rewarding watch. Rather than resort to comedy sidekick stereotype, Giordino's character is a refreshingly capable and resourceful chap, proving a combative match for his friend and coming across more as Pitt's stoner other half than some pratfalling wretch along for the audience's giggling benefit. Unfortunately the converse is true for Cruz, whose apparent love interest status isn't even fulfilled by any lovin' from the leading man until two seconds before the credits roll. True, she does off a template baddie with an AK, but her presence here is for the most part superfluous, the script affording her little opportunity to flex her action muscles or lend emotional gravitas. Natch.
In summation, and without giving away any more of the plot, Sahara has pretty much all the right ingredients required by the genre, and the team have certainly done a grand job of making the production value seem greater than the obvious sum of it's parts. The only problem is that it all seems a little, well, flat. The dialogue occasionally shines yet never sparkles, the action rattles but never gets raucous; you get the idea. There are certainly unexpected moments of quality (Cruz stuck down a well listening to the screams of her colleagues as they are gunned down by militia springs to mind) where Sahara bravely rises above itself, but when the Indy trilogy has arguably done everything so much better before a film like this is going to need a little more magic if it's intention is to cut the mustard. Still, Eisner and co have left sufficient evidence to make the exploration of a sequel a definite opportunity, and with McConaughey and Zahn proving such a likeable pairing (and no doubt contractually obliged at a likeably cheap rate to at least one further instalment) for once that sounds less like a threat and more like a welcome proposition. Watch this space.
I grant thee a 3, my child.
**** STOP PRESS **** : I've just discovered that Sahara actually cost 120 million dollars, and not the 60-70 million I had first heard. As you may be aware, this is the kind of money that attracts people like Spielberg etc., and now begs the question "where did all the money go?" Still, no change in score. Just a slap on the wrist for my shoddy research skills. Tsk tsk...
Steve Zahn (Al Giordino)
Penelope Cruz (Eva Rojas)