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Friday, April 8, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Movie Review

Characters cool, action hot in "Sahara"

Special to The Seattle Times

Enlarge this photoKEITH HAMSHERE / KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

Pumped-up action, unflappable daredevils prevent this Bond wannabe from drying up.

You say a mysterious epidemic is killing thousands of North Africans, a beautiful scientist has been targeted by assassins and a crazed dictator wants to destroy the Earth's oceans with a mutant red tide?

Sounds like we better call 007. Oh, wait a minute — that job is currently open now that Pierce Brosnan has been unceremoniously dumped from his James Bond gig. While the world waits with bated breath to see whether Clive Owen or Hugh Jackman is destined to be the next MI6 playboy-savior, we'll just have to find a lesser substitute.

Meet Dirk Pitt, novelist Clive Cussler's absurdly named treasure hunter and adventurer from "Sahara," whose daring (and lucrative) deeds on behalf of the National Underwater and Marine Agency are inexplicably (if cutely) accompanied by redneck 1970s rock, a la Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama."

Mellow, fearless and sometimes comically resourceful, Pitt (last seen played by Richard Jordan in 1980's oddly haunting "Raise the Titanic") is portrayed here with playful, Southern graciousness by Texan Matthew McConaughey.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer 2.5 stars

"Sahara," with Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, William H. Macy. Directed by Breck Eisner, from a screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, John C. Richards and James V. Hart. Based on a novel by Clive Cussler. 127 minutes. Rated PG-13 for action and violence. Several theaters.

Steve Zahn goes into stoner mode as Pitt's equally courageous sidekick Al Giordino. And Pitt works for the deep-pocketed James Sandecker (William H. Macy), a retired admiral with an interest in sunken rarities and little use for obtuse government officials.

Sandecker gets nowhere with one such American consul in Africa after Pitt and Giordino discover that groundwater contamination from a mysterious factory is killing people for miles around. It's also threatening to decimate ocean life, a danger that makes allies of Pitt and a United Nations doctor, Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz). The latter's life has been threatened by a ruthless potentate (Clint Dyer) in cahoots with a European capitalist (Lambert Wilson) to reap billions while despoiling the environment.

Crowding the story is a subplot about Pitt's longtime obsession with finding an ironclad ship from the American Civil War era that somehow ended up in the Sahara desert. But let that go for now.

"Sahara" is really a succession of highly charged set-pieces, written and executed as if the writers and director Breck Eisner (son of outgoing Disney CEO Michael Eisner) are overcompensating for the painful reality that they will never get to make a real Bond — or, for that matter, Indiana Jones — movie.

Indeed, some of the film's many action sequences are as taut and imaginative as anything from the best of the recent Bond films. There's a lengthy chase on a river in which Pitt and Giordino outfox several boatloads of armed soldiers, a race to hop aboard a speeding train from the backs of camels and a climactic fight with an assassin atop a tower about to vaporize in a conflagration. But there may be a little too much bang for the buck in "Sahara," or perhaps it's just that action and violence feel monotonous when there isn't a balance with other fantasy elements.

McConaughey and Zahn are a hoot as unflappable daredevils never short of an ace up their sleeves, and Eisner and his well-oiled crew make glossy, memorable moments out of all the escapist suspense. But the heroes lack shadow and dimension, and if there is any internal conflict between Pitt's penchant for saving the world and looting antiquities for personal gain, it doesn't show.

Meanwhile, Cruz's character is afforded understandable respect by the filmmakers for her bravery, but come on: She's a de facto Bond girl who doesn't climb into a bikini until the final scene.

"Sahara" is the first of a projected series of Dirk Pitt films, so perhaps there will be an opportunity to work out some of these kinks. In the meantime, "Sahara" is entertaining but flawed popcorn fare.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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