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Desert Quest

Heroic efforts and silly plot turns leave earnest Sahara in the dust


Our most beloved movie heroes, from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood, operate from the belief that any crisis can be resolved by opening up a can of whoop-ass. Wholesale ingestion of that movie fiction may, in fact, lead us into real life debacles like Iraq, where we feel cheated when some superior American fire power can't defeat totalitarianism and win hearts and minds in one fell swoop.

But it sure as shooting works in Sahara, an action-adventure film with a plot so ludicrous, it's a shock to learn its source material was not a comic book.

Sahara's hero is a Yankee Doodle cowboy, Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey), a trained Navy SEAL who in the course of recovering a long-lost treasure and finding the source of an African plague, also opens said whoop-ass on a nation of warring Africans. All in a day's work.

Dirk comes with a wisecracking best pal, Al (Steve Zahn), to provide comic relief when interest in McConaughey's tanned biceps flags. Based on adventure novelist Clive Cussler's hero, Pitt is employed as a deep-sea adventurer with the National Underwater Marine Agency, though he spends the bulk of Sahara stuck on dry land.

Dirk and Al have gone off the government's payroll, along with a number of other rogue ex-military types to work as jet-setting treasure hunters.

So while Dirk is well-schooled in American military stealth, he is an Army of one, beholden to no one, not even the ex-Adm. Sandecker (William H. Macy), who employs him to recover lost artifacts in the world's oceans. Dirk's real dream is to recover - and here's where the plot really takes a detour into Magic Kingdom territory - a Civil War-era battleship that supposedly evaded Yankee forces by sailing to Africa. Sahara director Breck Eisner's Disneyesque sense of the impossible (underwritten with a lot of expensive equipment and big bucks) in this hyperbolic thrill ride of a movie may have been inherited from his dad, outgoing Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

Dirk's dream mission just so happens to intersect with the path of a dreamy World Health Organization doctor, Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), searching for the source of an African plague. Her wardrobe of tank tops and sexy ball gowns gives new meaning to "hot zone."

Like other American movie heroes, Dirk may be a renegade, but he's also like John Wayne in The Searchers, committed to the idea of society and the higher good, so he helps the little doctor lady out by finding the cause of the plague.

Dr. Intrepid starts out as plucky and sassy, but by the film's conclusion, Eva is playing action-adventure arm candy. She's a tug-of-war prize between the bad guys and Dirk, whose winning grin and technical expertise tell us all we need to know about who's going to get the long portion of this pulchritudinous wishbone.

Sahara is a little boy's adventure tale pumped full of testosterone and thrills, from the African plague victim who jumps out of his coma to give viewers a good scare, to trigger-happy African soldiers led by a bully boy dictator (Lennie James). Sahara is like a fireworks display with a plot: Each story tangent is a way of getting to the next gun battle/explosion/bout of bloody fisticuffs.

Africa in Sahara has the similarly cartoonish feel of the Middle East in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Its hordes of faceless gun-and-knife-toting native soldiers are dispatched posthaste by our hero.

Sahara's landscape is a theme park of improbability where Dirk and pals cruise African waterways and roam its crowded streets unnoticed, despite the strains of classic '70s rock from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Steppenwolf that orchestrates their every move. The world is their Abercrombie, so goods and services just pop up with ease. Sahara is colonialist action-adventure where everyone speaks English and only the bad guys don't dig Americans. Need to communicate with the admiral back in Lagos? A pay phone miraculously appears in the middle of the desert. Need a couple of camels and some bedouin gear? Done. Dirk and Al are soon traipsing across the desert like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in Road to Morocco.

If the film had a better sense of humor and more tongue-in-cheek flair, some of these impossibilities might go down a little easier, as they did in the ebulliently self-aware Raiders of the Lost Ark. But Sahara has a world-is-my-oyster feel rooted less in the magic of moviemaking than it is in a jingoistic belief embraced by some Americans, of their own homegrown superheroic capabilities. An African civil war, deadly plague and a gorgeous lady doctor just don't stand a chance.

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