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AT THE MOVIES: Raising Dirk Pitt: Sahara (***)

There was a time where it looked likely that Matthew McConaughey would become a star.  He was prematurely given the starring role in Joel Schumacher’s A Time to Kill, opposite Sandra Bullock.  Much press was given to the young actor, and journalists scrambled to compare him to the likes of Paul Newman.  The film was not as well received as other movie adaptations of John Grisham’s wildly popular books, like The Firm and The Pelican Brief, and just as quickly as his star rose, Matthew McConaughey  began to fall. 

Part of the problem for McConaughey was that no one knew quite what to do with him.  One of his earliest roles was not a lead, but a supporting role, and it was his best – the burned out playboy high-schooler in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused.  In McConaughey’s hands, what could have been a one-joke job became a deftly portrayed piece of comic relief and pathos all rolled into one.

But as his star rose, McConaughey was cast in roles that weren’t right for him – he was the cop, the hero, the love interest – usually helming films he couldn’t quite get a handle on.  So, what was it about McConaughey that prevented him from becoming a Newman, a Redford, a Pitt?  It is a question that has heretofore gone unanswered. 

Finally, after years of mostly thankless toiling, a role has come along that McConaughey is absolutely perfect for – playing Dirk Pitt, action hero of Sahara, only the second Clive Cussler novel to be brought to the big screen.  McConaughey’s brand of silly charm and easy machismo is perfect for this film, whether or not he fully realizes “Dirk Pitt” to the satisfaction of fans of the novels.

Cussler’s books don’t easily translate to film mostly because there is just so much ridiculous melodrama in them.  Where bodice rippers are the favorites of lonely housewives and romance-hungry women, Clive Cussler’s adventure novels are fuel for the fire of otherwise bored men and boys who long to swing from vines and ride through the desert on camels to save the world from total destruction, all the while romancing the pretty girl who pops up out of nowhere.  

Much has been made of Cussler’s legal battles with the producers of Sahara – he felt he wasn’t given enough artistic control and tried in vain to block the film’s release.  So whatever success the film generates likely won’t be from Cussler fans.  Nonetheless, the film is as promised: absurd, ridiculous fun.

Sahara follows the ubiquitous Dirk Pitt as he hunts down a Civil War battle ship that is supposedly lost in the desert in Africa.  He brings along his sidekick Al (Steve Zahn) and eventually runs into a beautiful doctor (Penelope Cruz) who is trying to save Africans from what looks like a plague but is, it turns out, toxic waste.  It isn’t long before Pitt’s quest to find treasure in the battle ship runs up against the need to save the world from an environmental catastrophe that would render the planet lifeless in a matter of years.  Gee, what’s a guy to do?  Save the world, that’s what. 

The banter between Dirk and the doctor is more reminiscent of It Happened One Night than, say, the Indiana Jones films.  And that’s one reason why they were wise to cast McConaughey in the lead: he has an old fashioned, rakish charm, the kind that hasn’t been seen since the days of Clark Gable.  He is more Errol Flynn, less Harrison Ford.  

The three adventurers narrowly escape a variety of hostile environments; and they do so with a nod and wink and a few dumb jokes.  The first half of the film has trouble establishing this breezy tone, but it eventually gets there and when it hits its stride, Sahara finds itself among the better action films of the pre-summer period. 

The way to watch Sahara is to let go of any idea that the film is supposed to be taken seriously.  It’s been made, thankfully, with tongue firmly in cheek — there is simply no way any of these stunts could have been realistically pulled off.  With each new action sequence, Dirk and Al are dumped into situations you can’t imagine they can get themselves out of – and just at the last possible second they invent some crazy way out – like turning an abandoned airplane into a wind-surfing machine and literally surfing out of the desert – or pulling a “Panama,” which means escaping an entire army by jumping ship just seconds before blowing said ship to smithereens. It’s hard to hate a film like this, and way too easy to rip it apart on principle.  Instead, enjoy it for what it is – a silly, escapist, fantasy for boys and girls alike.  It’s good, clean fun – and it represents, perhaps, the moment Matthew McConaughey finally became a star.

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