Sahara Review

It's been a couple of years since the last James Bond film and it looks like it might be another couple before the producers have made their minds up who's playing him next. Until they get their act together, we can settle for Sahara, which is for all intents and purposes a James Bond movie. It has the outlandish plot, the Bond girl, Bond villains, Bond-style action scenes and even a secret headquarters to be broken into.

Sahara is one of a series of adventure novels written by Clive Cussler, very much in the 007 vein. They recount the exploits of the unfortunately named Dirk Pitt, who is not a gay porn star but a treasure hunter for NUMA - the National Underwater and Marine Agency. He's a kind of aquatic Indiana Jones who locates shipwrecks and artifacts on the sea floor. Pitt was brought to the screen once before, played by Richard Jordan in 1980's Raise The Titanic. That was a notorious fiasco and so, despite the popularity of Cussler's books, it's taken twenty-five years for Pitt to get a second chance. Now Matthew McConaughey steps into the role, possibly with the hope of starting his own action franchise, like Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible series and Matt Damon's Jason Bourne movies.

We meet Dirk in Lagos in West Africa, where he's excavating an ancient sarcophagus, under the supervision of NUMA's C.O., Admiral Sandecker (William H Macy) and with the help of sidekicks Al (Steve Zahn) and Rudi (Rainn Wilson). A local black marketeer contacts Dirk with information relating to his pet project - finding a legendary Civil War-era Confederate battleship, which is rumoured to have escaped the Yankee guns and steamed across the Atlantic to Africa. The dealer has discovered a clue that might lead to its resting place, which appears to be in the war-torn state of Mali.

Another westerner in Lagos is Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz), who works for the World Health Organisation. She's trying to trace the source of a mysterious plague which has killed a number of Africans. Learning that all of the victims have recently visited Mali, she asks Dirk and his team for a ride upriver. It's going to be a treacherous journey: Eva's being followed by thugs working for Mali's dictator, General Kazim (Lennie James) and sinister French industrialist Yves Massarde (Lambert Wilson). It's in both of their best interests to keep her from discovering what's causing the plague.

I tried to read Sahara last year but gave up after a few chapters, unimpressed by Cussler's writing. The film, I'm happy to say, is much more fun. There's something pleasingly old school about it: Sahara really does play like a better-than-average James Bond movie, with just the right balance of plotting, humour and mayhem. First-time director Breck Eisner, bless him, isn't interested in MTV-style editing or flashy bullet-time effects. He directs like a good, old-fashioned hack for hire, like Martin Campbell (Goldeneye) or John Glen (Octopussy), not a modern day show-off like McG. His action scenes depend more on the work of stuntmen than computer technicians.

Clive Cussler is reported to be unhappy with what's been done to his hero and it's easy to see why. Matthew McConaughey plays Pitt as a grinning, overgrown high school boy, nothing like the square-jawed hero on the page. I'm not complaining though. I found Cussler's character absurdly one-dimensional and I much preferred McConaughey's tongue-in-cheek interpretation. The Texan actor looks like he's having the time of his life, which makes a refreshing change from all the glum, tortured heroes we've been seeing lately. I particularly enjoyed the geeky banter between Dirk and his sidekicks: Rudi: "I shot a guy with a flare gun." Dirk: "Cool!"

Steve Zahn is in fine, spaced-out form as Al, the main comedy sidekick and William H Macy, playing the M role, brings the same sly, down-to-earth humour he brought to Jurassic Park III and Cellular. Sometimes I think every big action film should by law contain William H Macy. While Penélope Cruz is asked to do no more than play a Bond girl (which at least sounds better than a Pitt girl), she's a good sport and does everything required of her. She acts suitably defiant when captured and tied to a chair, her hair doesn't get too messed up from hanging off of trains and helicopters and she looks very fetching in a swimsuit.

Overall

7

out of 10

Last updated: 19/06/2018 10:30:28

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