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Published: Friday, 4/8/2005

Movie review: Sahara **

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey), left, is assisted by his sidekick,
Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) in Sahara. Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey), left, is assisted by his sidekick, Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) in Sahara.
KEITH HAMSHERE Enlarge

Dirk Pitt is a man "no woman could ever completely possess."

Dirk Pitt is a man of action.

A lust-in-the-dust tough guy.

I mean, am I right? A man with a name like Dirk Pitt does not do your taxes - unless, of course, there's a chance he could wrestle a 1040 from the mouth of an alligator and deliver it to a post office at 11:59:58 p.m. on April 15.

Dirk Pitt (gosh, parents are cruel) is the hero of the big new action adventure Sahara. Dirk Pitt is played by Matthew McConaughey - that Texas twang of his cranked to 11. Dirk Pitt (you've got to say his entire name every time) is the plunderer-archaeologist-explorer-action himbo of those Clive Cussler paperbacks you see crammed into racks at airports - the ones with triple-spaced pages the guy next to you is reading if The Da Vinci Code was sold out. And The Da Vinci Code is not a bad place to start with an adventure like this.

The general idea: Everything you were taught in social studies was actually an elaborate ruse to keep you from an entirely different set of "facts." In Cyclops, Dirk Pitt discovered a top-secret colony on the moon. The president went missing (also, there was something about a poison tide) in Deep Six. Cleopatra's barge turned up in Texas in Treasure. Trojan Odyssey reveals that the ancient city of Troy was actually outside London (oh, that and Dirk Pitt narrowly averts the start of the next Ice Age). Atlantis Found is self-explanatory. Dragon, however, is not: A Dr. Evil wannabe (complete with an island hideout, naturally) holds the world for ransom. Cussler's most famous beach-read, though, is Raise the Titanic, and in it, Dirk Pitt raises the ... well, you know.

Anyway, I've read a couple.

Dirk Pitt is, to be glib, an American James Bond without the ice-cold mean streak but with a thicker set of books on his shelves. He's described in the Sahara press notes as "a renaissance man" but I'd say that opens the definition to anyone who writes left-handed and knows how to scramble an egg.

So you have to hand it to McConaughey for tossing a lot of bestselling dime-novel history aside - the character has been around for 32 years, starred in 17 novels, sold more than 125 million books. But he plays Dirk Pitt without self-consciousness or a nod of fastidiousness to Cussler fans. He has a great big good-ole'-boy grin and Molly Hatchet on the Jeep stereo; he's like a drinking buddy who enjoys the occasional afternoon of antiquing. Heresy, say Cussler fans?

Yes, but cheerful heresy.

Sahara starts with an obsession and then stumbles onto a storyline. Dirk Pitt's obsession is a missing Confederate blockade runner that looks like a stealth bomber mated with a pirate clipper. In 1865, near the end of the Civil War, it blasted through a Virginia port (we see all this in a nifty, bombs-bursting-in-air flashback) and floated off to ...

Dirk Pitt is certain it's Africa.

Specifically, a region in West Africa dried up in famine and swallowed up by Saharan desert.

What's that - improbable?

I'm just getting started. Penelope Cruz (who, if she read books on tape for a living, could be a consummate performance artist) plays the "beautiful and brilliant" Dr. Eva. In tank tops and tan khakis, and with no real urgency, she appears to have made this between photo shoots for her Ralph Lauren campaign.

She works for the World Health Organization and happens to bump into Dirk Pitt again and again, which is actually more likely than finding a Civil War ironside in the desert. Dr. Eva thinks there's a plague spreading and it could have something to do with that sneering French industrialist who keeps an underground laboratory in the Sahara.

Maybe it's a crepe shoppe.

Or perhaps it's connected to the Civil War stealth bomber and the plague, and if McConaughey rides a camel really fast and jumps on a moving train, if Steve Zahn (as the zany sidekick, Al) does his stoner routine enough times, if Penelope is kidnapped by the French Industrialist, perhaps if all this comes together, they can stop the plague and find the ship ... oh, never mind.

Sahara feels like 1983.

Remember the days when an exploding helicopter was still impressive? Which, to a charming extent here, is refreshing: Sahara is distinctly low-tech. Actual stunt actors do actual stunts without the assistance of digital touch-ups. It's so unhurried to locate the source of the plague that will "spread to New York in 10 days," the film feels at times like a light travelogue with gunfire. The good thing is that you don't have to work very hard and it doesn't ask a lot of you, either.

The bad thing is Sahara is desperate to be liked. Every scene jumps with classic riff rock - even when these frat boy heroes ride into villages filled with unimaginable poverty. (Call me oversensitive, but "We're an American Band" seems kind of crass, under the circumstances.) Director Breck Eisner (son of Michael) is less successful at recalling a rollicking treasure hunt than the moment after the collapse of the '70s golden age, when Star Wars and Indiana Jones became hot and the franchise picture was new. Which is to say, Sahara is bland and naive, and probably less aware of how little of it makes sense than the audience.

Cussler hasn't given his blessing to a movie since Raise the Titanic (1980), and if you've ever seen that infamous snoozer, you appreciate why. He signed off on Sahara until Paramount made alterations. They included a scene where Cruz saves McConaughey, and Cussler reportedly said Dirk Pitt would never be saved by a woman. He distanced himself, and that's all too bad:

Played with a straight face, Dirk Pitt, a sort of caveman Indiana Jones, might make an appealing throwback - just waiting to be dissected and turned on his head. Or with even fewer alterations, he could be an Austin Powersesque parody of a dusty adventurer. "No woman could completely possess him," as Cussler writes, because he loves himself too much. So McConaughey is the right actor. His smile is white and wide. He shows no interest in other actors. He was once arrested while playing the bongos in the nude.

He's no stranger to absurdity.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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