Sahara (2005)

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I’ve never quite understood why Sahara (the 2005 film starring Matthew McConaughey and Penélope Cruz) is quite so widely disliked as reviewers and review sites make it out to be.

It’s not a great work of art, but it’s a cheerfully good natured big budget action film based on the novel by Clive Cussler, which did reasonably well at the box office at the time but which now is poorly remembered if remembered at all. Which seems a bit harsh, because it has much to recommend it, from the spectacular African locations gorgeously shot by director Breck Eisner to the well-mounted action sequences that eschew CGI for the real thing wherever possible.

It’s very much a case of being an attempt at an updated Indiana Jones film, with a historical puzzle to solve that puts it firmly in the footsteps of the likes of National Treasure and the then in-vogue novels of Dan Brown such as The Da Vinci Code. And it all has more than a little pre-Daniel Craig Bond vibe to it as well, with a similar feel to the overall plot, the battle sequence on the river feeling oddly familiar from the likes of Moonraker and the climax being staged at the suave villain’s hi-tech desert superlair. The film’s composer Clint Mansell certainly got the same vibe and infuses the score with more than a little homage to John Barry’s big-brass waah-waah sound at key moments.

The lead characters are all likeable and perfectly well played, and there’s good support from the likes of Steve Zahn as the goofy sidekick (although for once one who’s as capable with the action as the lead hero), Rainn Wilson (as the goofy sidekick’s even goofier, less-capable sidekick), William H Macy (classy as ever as their boss) and Delroy Lindo in a limited cameo as a CIA agent. Even the bad guys (Matrix star Lambert Wilson and Britain’s Lennie James) have a certain appeal to them.

In fact it’s probably this all round ‘niceness’ of the film that earns it its detractors, because Sahara came along just as action fans were starting to expect something more from their cinematic fare than just out and out dumb fun spills and thrills. 2005 would also see Batman Begins and the following year brought us Casino Royale, and from then on any film that didn’t have a dark, deep angsty edge to it was just dismissed as lightweight waffle.

And Sahara certainly has no heft to it. It’s just an old style action romp, fun and spectacular – nothing more. Personally I think there’s room for films like this, the kind you can watch without too much brain strain on a wet Sunday afternoon, that transports you to a new place and delivers a satisfying two hours of entertainment that needn’t be an taxing or even enduring experience.

The presumably hoped-for franchise didn’t materialise, partly because the spiralling costs of the African location filming meant that the film struggled to recoup its money; and mostly because of a vicious legal battle that broke out between the film’s producers and the original author. But even if it had, it’s hard to believe that the hero of this film would have become a household name in the way that James Bond, Jason Bourne or Harry Potter have. With all due respect to Cussler and the legion of fans who buy his books, it’s frankly impossible to take McConaughey’s character name seriously and it’s notable that it’s barely mentioned or referred to throughout the entire film. Because let’s be honest – to 21st century ears, Dirk Pitt just sounds like he should be a 70s porn star or strip tease artist.

(And yes, the fact that McConaughey’s latest film out this week on DVD is the well-regarded Magic Mike, about a troupe of male strippers, is a very curious coincidence!)

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