For treasure-hunter Dirk Pitt, the inland deserts of Africa are the very place you'd expect to find a long-lost Civil War ship. It's not the brutal sun or the available tequila that brings on this delusion, but the discovery in Mali of a Confederate gold coin last seen aboard the CSS Ironclad Texas as it drifted away from Virginia during the war.
So Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) rounds up two colleagues and an attractive World Health Organization doctor named Eva (Penelope Cruz), whom he has rescued on the beach at Lagos from a mysterious hooded man. He fires up his boss's Biscayne Bay-style high-speed powerboat and the crew blithely heads up the Niger River for what will surely be outrageous adventures.
Breck Eisner adapted Sahara from Clive Cussler's novel, and for a newbie director he's managed to deliver a mildly entertaining, if predictable, big-budget B movie. (Eisner's not new to the biz, though; his dad is Disney top poobah Michael Eisner.) The location shooting delivers great scenery, special effects are kept to a minimum, and the hurtling pace keeps the preposterous story afloat.
Supposedly, we are in search of "history that has been lost to the tides of time," though in a story this ridiculous and scattered, I'd wager we're deep in a narrative compiled at random by three dozen monkeys. What is most astonishing about Sahara is how the film manages to meld at least a dozen farfetched scenarios into one unlikely story: There's a biological plague, a Confederate war ship, warring African tribes, an international troika of evil (local dictator, French industrialist and the CIA), a kidnapping, multiple chases involving an astonishing array of vehicles, explosions, fisticuffs and one formal cocktail party. Sahara also manages to make solar energy really, really evil.
Yet, desert adventure suits McConaughey. His lanky frame boasts an easy athleticism that is only accentuated by the dirty sweat glistening on his bronzed, bare chest. Blue eyes and dazzling dentures gleam from beneath his improvised headscarf. OK, so he's no Lawrence of Arabia, but for a Texas alpha stoner, he looks quite at home surfing an airplane wing across a sand dune (it's too silly to explain).
But Peter O'Toole never had to drag around the dead weight of a goofy sidekick the way McConaughey has the mostly insufferable Steve Zahn snapping at his heels. Sahara also dares to add a second goofy sidekick -- Six Feet Under's Rainn Wilson, who gets the scared-silly nerd laughs.
We know from the outset that Cruz is playing a serious doctor: Her hair is done in tight bun and she frowns frequently. She also carries an unlimited supply of latex gloves which she snaps on at the slightest hint of ickiness. She aims to be game (and ends up looking quite gamey) but Cruz never masters the appropriate tomboyish bravado these gal roles in actioners require. (Who can blame her? Trading arthouse roles for chasing a train on camelback?) She and McConaughey don't quite click, though the film has little time to spend developing the romantic side of either character.
Because what are the idle flirtations of two young people when the health of the entire planet hangs in the balance -- or when, the gods be praised, the Confederates rise from the desert to save the day? Carry on.