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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Way up a dry creek


Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Japanese title: Sahara: Shi no Sabaku o Dassyutu Seyo
Director: Breck Eisner
Running time: 124 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The rules behind the physical world have always been totally baffling to me, but even an idiot like myself could figure out the screenwriters for "Sahara" could use a crash course in Logic 101. Here are some of the more blatant slurs against the laws of nature: 1) 150 years in the past, an ironclad ship, designed for river travel, breaks the Union blockade during the Civil War and ends up stranded on an African river. 2) Said river has now become part of the vast Saharan desert. 3) Flare guns and cannons that had been buried in tons of sand for over a century can still work. 4) It's possible to subsist for days in the desert -- on poisoned water, no less. The brain reels, man. Who needs recreational drugs when you've got "Sahara"?

News photo
Penlope Cruz and Matthew McConaughey in "Sahara"

You know a film is in trouble when there are more than two people writing the story; "Sahara" has four and Clive Cussler (who wrote the original novel) got so mad he sued Paramount Pictures for the apparent hatchet job. And not only does this broth have too many cooks, the cooks were most likely assaulting each other with kitchen implements or receding into stony silences -- whatever it was, they weren't communicating. Consequently, it feels like several different action movies (the franchises of "Indiana Jones" and "The Mummy," to name but two) pasted together with duct tape, and with multiple plot lines running alongside each other like train tracks through Tokyo Station. "Sahara" may have its faults but stinginess sure as hell ain't one of them.

Here's the surprise: You might actually start to enjoy it. A movie this preposterous takes guts (not only to create but also to put it out there in broad daylight), and that is the one thing "Sahara" has above all. It was directed by Breck Eisner, son of Disney CEO Michael Eisner, which may account for the sheer fearlessness that makes "Sahara" work. Sometimes, it's important to tune out from what the marketing guys are saying and just follow one's heart. Besides, when one has a dad as powerful as that, who cares what anyone else thinks?

"Sahara" kicks off with an impressive opening sequence of a Civil War ironclad ship being bombed from the shores as it attempts to make its getaway. After much red glaring of rockets and the whistling of cannon bombs, suddenly the ship's captain orders the soldiers to cease fire and turn down the lights. Everything goes quiet on board, and the soldiers look at one another, wondering what will happen next. We never get a chance to find out.

The story then jumps to the present-day office of marine-salvage expert Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) where a miniature replica of the ironclad ship rests on the table and the walls are plastered with photos of grinning Dirk and his pal Al (Steve Zahn) at the sites of their many adventures all over the world. The office is empty, for Dirk and Al are off on another mission, this time in Nigeria.

After this, the story wastes no time in getting down to business, which is to go racing down a freeway of incoherence. Nothing can get in its way, not even Penelope Cruz, who plays Eva Rojas, a dedicated doctor working for the World Health Organization (we know she's serious because her hair's in a bun and she's wearing glasses). Eva suspects that there's an outbreak of a serious epidemic in Mali, which is spreading all over Africa, and wants to go locate the source of the disease. She hitches a ride from Dirk and Al who are heading in the same direction, convinced that the ironclad is buried somewhere in the Sahara.

By this time, the bad guys are already pursuing them for reasons not entirely clear and there's the usual tonnage of explosions, the frenetic emptying of machinegun cartridges, flying debris and an ever-rising body count. The baddies are led by genocidal African dictator General Kazim (Lennie James) who dresses in Armani, sports dreadlocks and has his bullets custom-made in London. The boss of the good guys is more cliched: Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy), obsessed with all things marine, wears blue blazers and is influential enough to borrow some muscle from the CIA, to help "get my boys out of trouble."

And in the meantime Dirk Pitt and Co. deploy camels, trains, cars and, in one scene, part of a wrecked Cessna buried in the sand (you'll never guess how) -- to shake off the evildoers and get to their destination, which turns out to be a secret high-tech factory owned by French power-monger Eve Massarde (Lambert Wilson). Don't ask how the movie got there.

In "Sahara," ours is not to reason why, ours is to take in the beautiful and endless ripples of sand and contemplate the fearsome UV rays beating down upon Dirk, Al and Eva as the trio dodge bullets and brave the vast desert without gear or supplies. In the real world, these conditions would have had them dying from dehydration within the hour. Doctor Eva starts out with beige safari outfits and spectacles but once things get real hot and tough out there she discards all protective clothing or visual aids and goes with the loose, tangled hair and a clinging black tank over a heaving bosom. As for Dirk, he simply spends most of the movie combating both the Saharan sun and evil henchmen with a bare, sweating torso. Now that's my kind of adventure.

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