Sahara review by Mike Long

As a Generation X'er, I spent my adolescence with the great action films of the 80s -- Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Terminator, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Die Hard. But, action films ain't what they used to be. From the mid 1990's until the present, action films have seen a decline in popularity. I've found that most are unnecessarily dark or try to hard to have a hip edginess. The recent release Sahara may not be a great movie, but it's a fun movie that harkens back to my teenage years.

Sahara opens in 1865 in Richmond, Virginia, where we are introduced to the Ironclad boat "Texas", which is being bombarded by enemy fire. The story then leaps ahead to the present in Morocco. Here, two doctors from the World Health Organization, Dr. Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz) and Dr. Frank Hopper (Glynn Turman), are investigating an outbreak of a mysterious disease. When Eva is attacked by a group of thugs, she is rescued by Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) and taken aboard his ship, where she meets his partner, Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) and his boss, Admiral Jim Sandecker (William H. Macy). These men are part of NUMA, a group who specializes in retrieving undersea treasures. We learn that Pitt has a life-long obsession with finding the "Texas", which was rumored to have somehow been lost in African desert. When Pitt gets a new lead on the boat, he convinces Sandecker to let him go to Mali to search for it. Eva is able to convince the Admiral to let she and Hopper tag along in order to track the disease.

Once in the country, the two groups separate, but both find themselves unwelcome. General Kazim (Lennie James), the tyrannical ruler of Mali, doesn't want the W.H.O. snooping around in his country. Meanwhile, Pitt, Al, and their technical guy, Rudi Gunn (Rainn Wilson), are pursued by soldiers. Soon, Pitt, Al, and Eva will discover that while their goals are very different, that they may lie upon the same path, where they will uncover a great conspiracy within the country.

Sahara is based on a novel by adventure author and real-life ocean explorer Clive Cussler, and as with many films which are based on books, the movie bites off way more than it can chew. The story travels through many location, includes many characters, and throws many subplots at the audience. At one point, I thought that I'd figured out what was causing the unusual disease, and admired the film for crafting a simple, but ingenious explanation. However, I was quite wrong and the origin of the illness was much more convoluted. Also, the locations and political players can be confusing.

But, if one can get past the overblown nature of the script, Sahara is a fun movie, which plays as an unapologetic Saturday matinee popcorn flick. While the movie may have a very detailed and convoluted plot, the movie can be enjoyed on the most basic level as an adventure movie. The film moves along at a very nice pace and contains some very nice action set-pieces, including a very well-done boat chase scene. Director Breck Eisner (son of Disney chief Michael Eisner) helms his first major film here (and honestly, given who he is, I wasn't expecting much) and fills the movie with some very nicely composed shots and gives the action scenes a very exciting edge. The movie does a fine job of mixing the on-water action moments with the fighting moments in the desert. At 123 minutes, Sahara runs a bit long, but the nearly non-stop action makes the film feel much shorter.

The film also gets a nice boost from its cast. I'm not familiar with Cussler's "Dirk Pitt" novels, so I don't know if Matthew McConaughey fits the bill, but the actor's laid-back approach to the material makes him a very likable hero. Actually, he's almost too relaxed and the movie would have been more suspenseful if Dirk had acted worried some of the time. The always reliable Steve Zahn is great as Dirk's sidekick, Al. Al is a great character because he isn't there solely for comic relief. Al received the same Naval training as Dirk, so when the fights begin, Al can hold his own, instead of running around screaming as most sidekicks would do. Penelope Cruz is OK as Dr. Rojas, but her performance lacks emotion in some key scenes. Of course, William H. Macy is great as the Admiral, a very humorless man.

In a time when action films continue to take themselves too seriously, or else forget to include the action, Sahara is a throwback to a simpler time. The movie presents a nice mixture of chases and battles. The story may be hard to stomach, but the gorgeous scenery mixed with the roller-coaster ride feel make Sahara a fun movie.

Sahara blows onto DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film is coming to DVD in two separate releases, one full-frame and the other widescreen. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer has been enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is sharp and clear, showing very little grain whatsoever. The image vacillates between showing a warm look to a slightly faded look (illustrating the heat of the locations), but its never overly bright. The desert backgrounds prove as the perfect staging point for the nice splashes of color in the movie. I did spot some haloes from edge enhancement, but not enough to be alarmed about. The DVD contains a very nice Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and music reproduction. The action scenes fill the stereo and rear speakers with tons of evenly distributed sound and the explosions rock the subwoofer.

The Sahara DVD contains a select few extras. We start with an audio commentary from director Breck Eisner, who speaks at length throughout the film. Eisners talk is chock full of facts, but its also dry, and feels as if hes so intent on telling us whats going on in a scene that he forgot to include the emotions of shooting that scene. This is rectified somewhat in the second audio commentary which has Eisner and star/executive producer Matthew McConaughey. This is a much more fun and relaxed talk, as the pair give many minute details about the making of the film, discussing locations and the interactions between the actors. Across the Sands of Sahara (15 minutes) is a making-of featurette which contains many comments from Eisner and McConaughey. This segment touches on how the film came about (with McConaughey pursuing rights to the characters) and an overview of characters and cast. Visualizing Sahara (20 minutes) explores the shooting of the film, specifically the style of the film and the exotic locations. Cast and Crew Wrap Film (10 minutes) is seemingly random behind-the-scenes video which illustrates all of the facets of location shooting. The final extra is four Deleted Scenes with optional commentary from Eisner and McConaughey. These scenes are interesting, but dont contain any new info. It was reported that author Clive Cussler was unhappy with the film and attempted to halt its release. That would explain why there are no extras on the DVD describing the author or his real-life work. This is unfortunate, because knowing that NUMA is real adds another dimension to the film.


7 out of 10 Jackasses

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