<I>Sahara</I>: Testosteroni and cheese


Remember when Matthew McConaughey was The Next Big Thing? He was never a bad actor, but his 15 minutes ran out before he established himself as a box-office draw. When you see him in a movie today, you know he wasn't the first choice for the part.

Hugh Jackman was reportedly the first choice for Sahara. He might have been better or worse, but McConaughey is fine as Clive Cussler's hero, Dirk Pitt. Steve Zahn as his sidekick, Al Giordino, handles the stuff requiring a lot of personality, so the star just has to be an amiable hunk.

With Indiana Jones 4 still in limbo, Sahara looked like it was going to be a place-holder, like a seat-filler at the Oscars; but it's turned out better than that, with a decent shot at starting a franchise of its own.

Like the Indiana Jones films, Sahara is patterned after the Saturday matinee serials of old, with a cliffhanger every few minutes as our heroes find themselves in one dangerous situation after another.

Dirk is part of NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency), a private firm run by retired Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy). Privately funded, they go around unearthing sunken treasures and returning them to their countries of origin.

A private obsession of Dirk's is the idea that the Texas, the Confederacy's last ironclad ship in the Civil War, somehow made it across the Atlantic to the West Coast of Africa. On assignment in Nigeria he gets a tip that the ship actually made it partway up the Niger River before... sinking, running aground, who knows?

The admiral lets Dirk and Al take his boat to Mali for three days to follow up this lead. Hitching a ride are World Health Organization doctors Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz) and Hopper (Glynn Turman), who believe an epidemic is starting in Mali.

Before they reach their destination, they have reason to wish their boat was ironclad, because all kinds of people are shooting at them. After they reach their destination, they still get shot at a lot– as the trail leads them from one place to another, individually and together. Dirk isn't worried about losing Eva because they've already made a date to meet in Monterey "when this is over," but he has to show up occasionally to rescue her (and vice versa).

The plot doesn't make much sense and is impossible to follow. It's said that the Texas brought a plague to Africa, which seems somehow to tie in with the current epidemic; but the old plague isn't mentioned again, and the new one turns out to be caused by toxic waste in the water. The latter is a byproduct of the work of a tycoon (Lambert Wilson) who's in cahoots with the warlord (Lennie James) who's seized power in Mali. Why is the warlord trying to kill his own people?

Don't worry about it. What's important is the fun and adventure as Dirk and Al (and sometimes Rudi, played by Rainn Wilson, who's kind of a sidekick's sidekick) keep getting stranded up the dunes without a compass yet always making their way to the scene of the next adventure.

Dirk and Al have been inseparable since kindergarten. They function as a team without making it look like they know what they're doing, but you get a sense of their usual division of labor when Al says, "I'll find the bomb. You get the girl."

You can usually deduce a movie's intended audience from the song that's played during the opening credits. In this case it's Dr. John's "Right Place, Wrong Time." Later, there will be some indigenous African music and a score with hints of James Bond in it, but there are also songs by Steppenwolf, Lynrd Skynrd, Grand Funk, and Faces, affirming that, Joe Sixpack, this movie's for you.

It's all a load of testosteroni and cheese, but it's fast-moving, well-mounted, and not so digital that you don't see some actual stunts performed– or if not, they fooled me.