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Sahara (2005)

Make no mistake: Sahara (2005) is a movie of surpassing silliness. In fact, this hippified puree of Indiana Jones and James Bond — adapted from one of Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt novels — blunders into outright stupidity in its final third. However, it's also surprisingly entertaining. This has little to do with Sahara's increasingly silly action-adventure story and everything to do with the laugh-out-loud camaraderie of Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn and William H. Macy, who head up a team of bickering treasure-hunters. Putting it another way: By the time the movie flies off the coincidence rails — and it really flies off the coincidence rails — you may like the characters so much that you're willing to watch them bumble their way through absurd chases and fistfights that would seem impractical in a Roger Moore Bond flick. Sahara plays a bit like a funnier, more humane National Treasure that way, with all the quality disclaimers (and guilty-pleasure enjoyment) that implies.

Purist fans of Cussler's Dirk Pitt novels may be, to put it mildly, annoyed by this movie. In the books, Pitt is apparently rugged, dangerous and dark, and his sidekick Al Giordino is a stout Italian; one recent message-board survey found fans dream-casting Clive Owen and a young Danny DeVito in these roles. But in Sahara, McConaughey plays Pitt as a two-fisted surfer boy — a laid-back adventurer who works meaningfully and plays hard. Meanwhile, his childhood buddy Al is played by Mr. Zahn, who is indeed very funny and short, but otherwise totally un-DeVito-esque. But McConaughey and Zahn's casual interplay makes the film. They're utterly winning as they squabble and fuss like an old married couple; they actually have more personal chemistry than McConaughey and his putative love interest, played by Penélope Cruz. Dirk and Al hunt for undersea treasure in the employ of a cigar-chomping retired admiral (played by Macy, a man who has the bizarre ability to make any line of dialogue sound like it came from a Mamet play). In Sahara, they're hunting for a missing Civil War ironclad in Africa (don't ask), and they give a World Health Organization worker (Cruz) a lift up the Niger River. Cruz's character is trying to find the source of a mysterious malady that's killing off African villagers, and she's being chased by a corrupt dictator (Lennie James) who has a mysterious relationship with a French industrialist (Lambert Wilson). Of course, all of these plot threads somehow conflate. And as soon as Pitt and his team accidentally dredge up a mysterious red algae growing in the Niger, the movie turns into a ludicrous, '70s-era Bond film — complete with an elegant villain, a mute assassin, the threat of global catastrophe and laptop computers that make helpful pronouncements like, "Warning: Malfunction Detected." The movie also suddenly finds itself packed with chases and fights that make precious little sense, with our heroes imbued with an almost magical ability to stumble onto locations, clues, and artifacts in the middle of vast swaths of desert. But — and this is the miraculous part — the first third of Sahara provides a buffer that makes the final third palatable. It's easy to be drawn in as Dirk & Co. zip through exotic locales to a soundtrack that alternates between world music and Lynrd Skynrd; it all feels like a sort of Putumayo action film until it derails. And after it derails? You may find yourself in a forgiving mood.

*          *          *

Paramount's DVD release of Sahara offers a flawless anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Supplements include two commentaries, one a solo effort from director Brett Eisner, the second with Eisner and Matthew McConaughey, who also served as executive producer on the project. Also on the board are the behind-the-scenes featurettes "Across the Sands of Sahara" (15 min.) and "Visualizing Sahara" (20 min.), a cast-and-crew wrap film (9 min.), four deleted scenes with optional commentary and a "play all" command, and previews for other Paramount titles. Keep-case.
M.E. Russell

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