a critiQal film review Sahara (2005)

Plot: While in Africa, World Health Organization doctor Eva (Cruz) discovers a mysterious disease is infecting the people. Determined to discover the source of this plague, she hitches a ride to war-torn Mali with Dirk Pitt (McConaughey), a treasure seeker working for NUMA, who, with the help of his old pal Al Giordino (Zahn), is searching for an ironclad Civil War ship Dirk believes disappeared somewhere near Mali.

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  • ...the Dirk Pitt that Cussler fans already know is brought to incredible life by a totally immersed Matthew McConaughey - making up for the miscast Steve Zahn as Pitt's pal Al Giordino.

Finally! After being an avid Dirk Pitt fan for years via Clive Cussler’s series of novels, I couldn’t wait to see this first Cussler-approved film, Sahara, starring the legendary Dirk Pitt.

But, then I heard Matthew McConaughy (who seems to sway greatly in his acting from good to lousy on a whim) was going to try to fill Pitt’s shoes in Sahara. And then, they choose that idiot from that buddy cop flick National Security (2003) a few years ago, Steve Zahn, to fill the short tank-like shoes of Pitt’s pal Giordino. I thought Cussler may have lost his mind.

That being the case, I figured I’d wait until what was bound to be a sure-fire catastrophe hit DVD before checking it out. As Sahara made it’s way through theaters, however, I heard good things from a couple of people who checked it out. Still, I wasn’t going to get my hopes up.

So, with much trepidation, I finally sat down and prepared to watch Sahara on DVD. Would McConaughey and Zahn spell the end of the Dirk Pitt screen adaptations – or would Cussler’s choices make this film just the beginning?

Thankfully, Matthew McConaughey took this role to heart (I would find out, watching the featurette “Across the Sands of Sahara” after the film, that McConaughey lobbied for 7 years for this role). His determination to become Dirk Pitt was evident throughout the film, and he embodied the character so well that Cussler readers will be able to readily accept him for a return engagement as Pitt.

McConaughy’s outlook on Pitt (as described by him in the above-mentioned featurette) is “a character who could wrestle with the crocodiles in the morning and dance with the Queen at the ball that night.” He shows that dichotomy perfectly in Sahara. He’s able to get down and dirty with the best of them when it’s required, but is able to put that aside and admire the finer things in life when there’s time.

A memorable scene in Sahara, for instance, comes when Pitt’s being herded along, captured by an unknown enemy. Along the way to meet the leader of their captors, they pass by a classic car – 1 of only 6 ever made. Pitt stops and gapes with longing at the car, overcome with excitement in seeing the rare beauty. That scene perfectly embodies the novelized version of the character, and McConaughey perfectly embodies the character in that moment.

Zahn and Macy, on the other hand, know they won’t be able to bring their characters from the books to such vibrant life in Sahara, so don’t even try. Gone is the stocky muscle-bound Giordino and the fiery red-bearded Admiral Sandecker from the books. Apart from the physical differences, Macy does a great job of showing the gruffness of the Admiral while at the same time showing a soft spot for his favorite employees. Zahn’s character, on the other hand, deviates almost completely from the books, being mainly involved in the film for the comic relief he provides. The undying friendship that he and Pitt share in the novels is long gone, and Zahn really ruins the character.

Penelope Cruz shows she can rough it with the best of them in Sahara, proving she’s not just Cruise’s wife, but a promising actor in her own right. Her character doesn’t have the great novelized history that the other three have to live up to, and she’s much the better for it. Her character comes off as well-meaning, but the chemistry between her and McConaughey seems a bit stilted and forced at times.

The plot of Sahara, being based on a Clive Cussler novel, is large in scope and very well thought out. The film is able to bring the page-turning excitement and adventure of the novel to the big screen without losing too much in the process. There is a noticeable lack of details that anyone familiar with the book will miss (such as how the plane they find in the desert got there – unless you go to the deleted scenes, and even then it’s brief), but these details had to be passed over, otherwise the film would have lost some of it’s fast-pace that keeps the audiences on their toes. Plus, it would have grown greatly over it’s already lengthy 2 hours and 3 minutes.

Thankfully, it seems Clive Cussler hasn’t totally lost his mind after all. The Dirk Pitt that fans of the novels already know is brought to incredible life by a totally immersed Matthew McConaughey in this first writer-approved film version of the man. This remarkable performance is able to bring the Cussler fans a sense of familiarity, which will get them through the totally unfamiliar Al Giordino that Steve Zahn brings to the screen. Plus, the involving storyline of the novel is realized, making the plot one of the best parts of the film.

For those of you who have never read one the many Dirk Pitt adventures in print, be prepared for the James Bond of treasure hunters in his debut film.

Here’s hoping that this isn’t the last we’ll see of McConaughey’s Pitt on the big screen…and that next time, they get him a love interest he can at least pretend to connect with – and a buddy who isn’t going to screw things up as much as Zahn.

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