Bolted together from the pages of Clive Cussler's best-selling novel, Sahara is part old-fashioned boys-own-adventure and part bang-up-to-date stunt extravaganza. If it fails to hit the Indiana Jones-style heights that it clearly aspires to (an ambition somewhat akin to swallowing the moon whole), it nevertheless remains a consistently rollicking dose of sand-splattered fun.
Matthew McConaughey plays shaggy-haired Dirk Pitt, ex-Navy SEAL and free-spirited adventurer who, along with his wisecracking partner-in-havoc Al (Zahn), heads into civil war ravaged Mali in pursuit of buried treasure. Also in Mali, on work of a rather more altruistic nature, is dedicated World Health Organisation medic Eva (Cruz), who is probing into the outbreak of a mysterious disease slowly sweeping the country. Soon these two rather different pursuits become intertwined as our designated heroes find themselves under assault from a tinpot dictator and a greedy Western industrialist.
As well as the ever-present ghost of Indy, Sahara also recalls Three Kings (surely the most successful post-Indy adventure picture) in its treasure-hunting jokers and sand-bleached backgrounds. What it lacks is Indiana Jones' simultaneous eye for pitch-perfect dialogue and vivid set-pieces or Three Kings' serious underbelly and bold aesthetics. This is over-the-top escapism pure and simple - though not quite as simple as might first appears. The Saharan settings may not be the most authentic way to brush up on your knowledge of Tuarog customs but, perhaps in the wake of the travel documentary fad (see Michael Palin's own wonderful Sahara), there is a convincing eye for detail (of bustling markets and mosques crammed with ancient scrolls) that doesn't just rely on cartoonish stereotypes for its background features.
Despite essentially thin characterisation, both McConaughey and Zahn are great - self-deprecating, charming and knocking about quick-fire banter like an affectionate bout of tennis. It's been a fair while since such an unforced buddy-buddy partnership has been thrown up in a mainstream action picture. William H Macy is also typically winning in one of his low-profile supporting roles (as the adventurer's current boss), oscillating between heartfelt concern about the state of his men and panicked frenzy about just what they're doing to his prize boat.
Cruz's medic is unfortunately rather less successful. She may not be reduced to a shrieking Karen Allen-style damson-in-distress, but nor is she afforded the weight of someone like Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone or Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen. She certainly looks the part, but her character is basically pretty dull, and without decent enough lines to come into her own she fails to develop beyond the role of token love interest. Sahara, like some of the more recent Bond episodes, is also another one of those films that fails to appreciate how important well-developed bad guys are to this kind of thing. What we're offered are your standard ruthless dictator and rapacious capitalist; what we need is a little more Blofeld-style individuality to their all-round evilness.
But, hey, Sahara is a lot of fun. The script isn't quite sharp enough to mark it out with the best of its genre, but it's fast, funny and crammed with tightly edited stunts and scrapes (from river to sand dunes) that never feel excessive or overfed. Whether that's enough to support a subsequent movie franchise remains to be seen.
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