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By Pete Vonder Haar | April 10, 2005

You know the summer movie season is upon us when movies stop making sense. And the opening scene of “Sahara,” the first adaptation of a Clive Cussler novel since the 1980 megabomb, “Raise the Titanic,” continues this tradition in grand fashion. It seems that during the Battle of Richmond, in the final days of the Civil War, the Confederate ironclad CSS Texas punched its way through the Union blockade and sailed off into the night with a belly full of newly minted gold coins, never to be heard from again. Moving on to the present day, we meet American treasure hunter and ex-Navy SEAL Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey), who – while helping to recover an ancient statue of the coast of Nigeria – looks for conclusive proof that this same ironclad ultimately ended up in…Africa?

If you have no problem believing that a boat suffering heavy damage and capable of maybe 8 knots under full steam could cross the Atlantic Ocean 140 years ago, or that the Confederacy had enough gold to mint thousand of coins in 1865, then you’ll be well on your way to enjoying “Sahara.” The movie also reintroduces us to Pitt, his friend and comrade Al Giordino (Steve Zahn), and their boss, Admiral James Sandecker (William H. Macy), head of the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA). In addition to the quest to find the lost ironclad, there’s also a subplot involving a doctor with the World Health Organization (Penélope Cruz), who’s trying to discover the source of a mysterious plague spreading down the river Niger from Mali. Mali’s ruler, the sinister General Kazim (Lennie James), isn’t too worried. After all, the majority of those affected are the Tuareg rebels he’s currently fighting against.

But disease containment is such a drag when there are bad guys to fight, Jeeps to drive, and lots of stuff to blow up. “Sahara” never makes much of an effort, beyond the opening credits sequence, to flesh out its characters, which you can view as either a drawback or a plus. The beginning of blockbuster season keeps coming earlier and earlier for Hollywood, and “Sahara” has much of that oft-criticized feel to it. To enjoy it, you’ll need to slip the synapses into neutral, overlook the ludicrous plot, the incredible number of coincidences (Pitt just happens to be skin diving in the one place that allows him to rescue Dr. Rojas, for example), and the borderline racist assumption that the Tuareg leader needs Great White (Treasure) Hunter Pitt to motivate him to get off his a*s and take it to Kazim.

Since I’ve never read any of Clive Cussler’s novels, I can’t tell you if McConaughey is “right” for the role of Pitt, but he sure seems at ease with it (then again, few of McConaughey’s characters come across as much of a stretch). Similarly, I can’t say whether or not Zahn is all wrong for the role of Al, but his and McConaughey’s chemistry is believable, which probably matters more for the film’s financial success and franchise potential. Speaking of Zahn, he does a good enough job that he can essentially count on getting offered every sidekick role that comes along (if he wasn’t already). Cruz, unfortunately, doesn’t contribute much here. The romantic subplot doesn’t kick in until, literally, the film’s final minutes, leaving her little to do but look peevish. Her presence feels more like an attempt to break up the boys’ club atmosphere pervading the rest of the movie.

“Sahara” is weakest when it tries to squeeze in the whole “global catastrophe” angle. World destruction makes for a nice overarching theme (and a great Afrika Bambaataa song), and the threat of it added a certain gravity to films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Mummy,” two films “Sahara” copies like a college freshman. Here, however, it’s unnecessary and flies in the face of the goofy chemistry between Dirk and Al. Having the “plague” floating down the Niger – the same river that Pitt’s ironclad may have taken inland – and threatening the Atlantic Ocean is convenient, but never really sticks.

I’m not going to lie, films like “Sahara” appeal to the primeval part of my brain that appreciates loud, goofy adventure movies. Director Breck Eisner (where have we heard that name before?) goes big, obviously swinging for a long-running action franchise. He doesn’t connect often, but does so enough to justify a matinee. It ain’t art, and it’s dumber than I’d like, but I don’t imagine you were expecting Kieslowski.

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