Desert-ing the epic: ‘Sahara’ doesn’t live up to its ambitious goals

“Sahara”

Paramount Pictures

Directed by Breck Eisner

Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, John C. Richards and James V. Hart

Based on the novel by Clive Cussler

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz

Opens April 8, 2005

Rated PG-13/127 min

Two and a half out of four stars

Film critic Owen Gleiberman was right on the money when he called “Raiders of the Lost Ark” the most influential movie of the past 30 years. “Star Wars” and “Jaws” may have birthed the Hollywood blockbuster mentality, but “Raiders” set the bar for non-stop, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink action-a formula Hollywood has been trying to emulate ever since, with varying degrees of success.

Think of “The Goonies,” “Young Sherlock Holmes,” or “Aliens.” Every one of those movies owes a debt of gratitude to Spielberg’s masterpiece-or an apology, in some cases.

Breck Eisner’s “Sahara” runs with the latter pack. It’s not an alpha-male, but it’s no limping, wounded animal either. “Sahara” is a mildly divergent adventure with a few creative touches and a solid performance by the always-dependable Steve Zahn (we’ll let “Saving Silverman” slide).

The hero of “Sahara” is Dirk Pitt, the scuba-diving treasure hunter and star of a series of popular novels by Clive Cussler. With a name that sounds like a deep hole of gooey machismo, Dirk Pitt is a tough, dogged, bare-chested Boy Scout, played by Matthew McConaughey with the same hit-or-miss frat-boy rambunctiousness for which he’s built a repertoire.

Yet, fans may be disappointed with the So-Cal transformation of their beloved Dirk- Cussler’s books envision Dirk as the classy type-something McConaughey certainly isn’t.

Regardless, as popcorn viewing, “Sahara” manages.

It begins as a hunt for a long-lost Civil War gunship, takes a left at plague-stricken, African villages and eventually ends up in the middle of a tribal war. The meandering story is haphazardly glued together by a speedboat chase, ecological disasters, the odd gunfight and the funny, beer-bong repartee between McConaughey and his slacker sidekick played by Zahn.

Everything but the kitchen sink, indeed. Oh, and there’s the girl-in-peril played by Penelope Cruz. You can almost hear an abating sigh when her smart doctor character is reduced to cowering at the bottom of a well. The tabloids made a big to-do about her and McConaughey’s on-set romance-if they have any chemistry in “real life,” none of it manages to translate on screen. The real chemistry lies with McConaughey and Zahn-their scenes together ooze impenetrable charm and charisma, and are the film’s highlights. There’s also a few exciting set pieces, like an enormous toxic waste dump powered by hundreds of reflecting mirrors and a very tall tower that just begs for bad guys to be thrown from it (and they are, in spectacular fashion).

Dirk Pitt won’t give Indiana Jones a run for his money-“Sahara” is too derivative and Dirk, as written by a committee of screenwriters and focus groups, is often too affably bland to achieve any legitimate greatness.

The better bet? Popping “Raiders” into your DVD player and appreciating how an over-the-top adventure is really done.

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