on April 08, 2005 by Wade Major
It says a great deal about the lingering impact of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" that nearly a quarter century later it's still spawning substandard knockoffs like "National Treasure" and, now, "Sahara," that aren't much better than the old cliffhanger serials to which "Raiders" paid big-budget homage. What's particularly unfortunate about "Sahara," though, is that it comes not only from the same studio that released "Raiders" -- Paramount Pictures -- but that it was directed by Breck Eisner, son of the man who was running Paramount at the time, none other than outgoing current Disney chief Michael Eisner.

Adapted from the Clive Cussler novel of the same name by no fewer than four credited writers, none of whom seem to have any grasp of rudimentary plot logic, "Sahara" follows a rowdy pair of former Navy buddies (Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn) who take temporary leave from their work as undersea treasure hunters to follow the trail of a legendary 140-year-old Civil War ironside rumored to have actually crossed the Atlantic and vanished deep into the swollen Niger river, coming to a rest somewhere in the desert of Mali.

The first and most obvious problem here is that, as objects of archeological interest, Civil War gunships just aren't as sexy or dramatic as something like the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, putting added pressure on McConaughey and Zahn to carry audience interest with painfully routine buddy banter. The greater problem, however, is that the picture is unable to reconcile that narrative with a parallel story concerning two World Health Organization doctors (Penelope Cruz and Glynn Turman), a purported plague outbreak and an unholy alliance between a Malian strongman (Lennie James) and an unscrupulous French industrialist (Lambert Wilson) that may have catastrophic ecological ramifications. Stubbornly skipping between the two otherwise unrelated stories at the most dramatically inopportune moments, "Sahara" ends up feeling schizophrenic and aimless, as if its makers can't decide if they want to show viewers a good time or leave them with a socially relevant message. Not that the two should necessarily be mutually exclusive, but as contextualized here, it's an uphill struggle from the get-go. Lacking the time (or, apparently, the inclination) to satisfactorily develop a single, well-conceived plot, the filmmakers move between their two lesser plots with a motley assortment of plot holes, contrivances and fantastically preposterous leaps which grow more and more incredulous as the film progresses. By the end, it's so inconceivably far-fetched that even the bombastic action sequences no longer sustain interest.

In fairness to Eisner, it's by no means a poor directorial effort. While accusations of nepotism and cronyism will continue to swirl around the ease with which the young commercial director landed his $100-million feature debut, the young Eisner's efforts are more than adequate, if creatively unremarkable. The real problem is the script, developed by McConaughey (who also serves as executive producer) as a vehicle to presumably launch him into the action star leagues that have previously eluded him. And that is one quest that "Sahara" will not resolve. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz, Steve Zahn, William H. Macy, Delroy Lindo, Lennie James and Lambert Wilson. Directed by Breck Eisner. Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and John C. Richards and James V. Hart. Produced by Howard Baldwin, Karen Baldwin, Mace Neufeld and Stephanie Austin. A Paramount release. Action/Adventure. Rated PG-13 for action violence. Running time: 123 min

Tags: Starring Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz, Steve Zahn, William H. Macy, Delroy Lindo, Lennie James, Lambert Wilson, Directed by Breck Eisner, Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer, John C. Richards, James V. Hart, Produced by Howard Baldwin, Karen Baldwin, Mace Neufeld, Stephanie Austin, A Paramount release, Action/Adventure, cronyism, Niger river, rudimentary, desert, Mali

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