I wanna have adventures! Not real adventures, of course, where you contract malaria and lose your passport and get stabbed in the kidneys in an alley in a country the CIA denies even exists. I wanna have movie adventures, like in Sahara. I wanna go to Africa and hunt for treasure and ride a camel across the desert in a desperate race against time and blow stuff up real good and see spectacular sunsets over mountainous dunes and crack wise in the face of certain death and jump on a moving train and uncover nefarious plots and serve up poetic comeuppance to bad guys and get shot at cuz someone thinks I’m dangerous and save the world from imminent doom and stuff.
Sometimes you want reality from The Movies, and sometimes you just want a big ol’ cartoony popcorny action adventure flick that’s exciting and makes you laugh and doesn’t require deep thinking but also isn’t so stupid that it makes you want to cry. And I got a huge kick out of this one. So there.
Needless too say, I usually wanna be the guy in one of these things — they have way more fun — but if I’d been having this movie adventure in the place of Penelope Cruz as the beautiful-and-brainy blah blah blah, pretty much the only thing I’da done different is I’da kissed Steve Zahn instead of Matthew McConaughey. Because even though McConaughey didn’t skeeve me out like he usually does, Zahn is completely adorable and way more competent than the typical sidekick guy, plus he’s funny, which is even more necessary than cuteness. That’s the only thing wrong with Sahara: Steve Zahn deserves to get kissed, and he doesn’t. How much more amusing would the movie have been if it were the short and goofy Zahn that a bikini-wearing Cruz ended up cavorting on the beach with in the coda, rather than the tall and studly McConaughey? (Aw, c’mon, that ain’t spoiling anything: you knew the two beautiful leads would end up together. It’s that kind of movie.) Zahn should never have told McConaughey, “I’ll find the bomb — you get the girl.” That’s how these things start. But okay, so I don’t have to share Steve Zahn with Penelope Cruz. It’s all good.
Sahara is based on a silly Clive Cussler novel — oh, admit it: you know you read Raise the Titanic in your shipwreck-obsessing period as a kid like I did. And McConaughey (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Reign of Fire) is Cussler’s Dirk Pitt, adventurer and treasure hunter extraordinaire, Zahn (Daddy Day Care, Stuart Little 2) is his buddy, Al Giordino — except for the fact that you know McConaughey always gets the girl, they’re both kinda the hero — and they’re on a wild goose chase in Africa for a mysteriously lost Confederate ironclad ship. Actually, it makes a crazy kind of sense, in a popcorn-movie way, but they get sidetracked helping out a WHO doctor, the beautiful-and-brainy Eva Rojas (Cruz: Noel, Gothika), who’s tracking the source of a mysterious and deadly disease, which a local warlord (Lennie James: 24 Hour Party People, Snatch) doesn’t want her to do, for some mysterious reason.
There’s lots of mysteriousness going on, along with the jumping onto moving trains and the cracking wise, and I thought I had it all figured out early on… I almost made a pinkie bet with the friend who came with me to the screening that I knew fer sure what the source of the disease was, it was so screamingly obvious. But I was wrong — completely and utterly wrong. Now, I ain’t saying Sahara is Fellini or anything, but it’s not as simplistic as I thought it’d be. It’s probably all totally preposterous — you know, even the things that aren’t obviously ridiculous probably would be if I knew anything about, say, Civil War-era ironclad technology — but no one here is taking anything too seriously. The cast — which also includes Rainn Wilson (Arthur the creepy morgue assistant on Six Feet Under) as a neophyte cohort of Dirk and Al, and William H. Macy (Cellular, Spartan) as their ex-Navy-admiral boss in the marine salvage company they all work for — gets it right everywhere, from the grinning insouciance with which they finesse the nonstop action, taking getting shot at and blown up in casual stride, to the underplaying of the jokes, so that sometimes they’ve already passed before you realize how funny they were.
You know, like how Al keeps losing his hats, and it’s not like they’re fedoras or anything, just baseball caps, but he complains about it too: in the middle of getting shot at and blown up, this is what he’s worrying about. The comparison — not just in the chapeau department but in lots of respects — with the Indiana Jones movies is inevitable, but everyone involved here knows that, and I think they made a conscious decision to, well, tip their hats in that direction in acknowledgement without making a big deal out of it. And the upshot is that Sahara might actually be worthy of licking the boots of Raiders of the Lost Ark.