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Review: 'Sahara' a spirited good time

Movie boosted by acting, action, humor

Paul Clinton

Penelope Cruz, Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn in "Sahara."
Matthew McConaughey
Clive Cussler
Penelope Cruz

(CNN) -- While "Sahara" doesn't even come close to living up to the gold standard of its action-adventure genre -- that is, the "Indiana Jones" franchise -- it's satisfying entertainment.

Sure, it goes on too long, but it's been beautifully shot on location in north and west Africa, and -- surprise! -- features excellent performances by all the main players.

Matthew McConaughey (who is also one of the film's four executive producers) plays master explorer Dirk Pitt, who -- along with his comic sidekick Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) -- is on a quest to find an ironclad American Civil War-era battleship that has somehow found its way to the Sahara desert. (The movie is based on a novel by Clive Cussler, known for plots of improbable but enjoyable derring-do.)

Both men work for NUMA -- the National Underwater and Marine Agency -- headed by Admiral Sandecker, played by William H. Macy, usually found snapping off David Mamet dialogue ("Spartan") or playing weighted-down sad sacks ("Magnolia," "The Cooler"). In "Sahara," Macy's cool, calibrated performance gives heft to what's otherwise a rather fanciful tale and provides a realistic anchor for all the rascals, warlords and rogues who inhabit the rest of the flick.

Early in their search for the mysterious ship, Al and Dirk meet a beautiful and highly dedicated doctor, Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz) working for the World Health Organization. She's on her own mission to find the source of a deadly disease killing hundreds of people across a vast area in the Sahara.

As their journeys merge, the three discover that toxic chemicals are causing the deaths. It seems that the toxins are being spread by an underground river -- the last known location of the ironclad ship.

Heroes and villains

Of course, there are villains.

Most notable -- and most one-dimensional -- is a nasty and heavily armed African warlord, General Kazim (Lennie James), with his own agenda regarding the chemicals' disposal. If he gets his way, the toxins could eventually effect the eco-system of the entire world.

McConaughey and Cruz hit it off in "Sahara." They hit it off in real life as well.

You never doubt that Kazim is going to get his, however. The character is written so broadly he's a major weak spot in the film.

There's also a French corporation man, played by Lambert Wilson, who has good intentions but ends up down the wrong path.

Fortunately, the film's strengths lie in the chemistry between the three main characters and the popcorn-chomping pacing of director Breck Eisner, son of controversial Disney head Michael. It's Eisner's first feature film, and though he and his team have taken some major liberties with the original material -- including changing the ending -- the book's spirit remains intact.

Smooth rhythms

McConaughey and Zahn develop -- and manage to maintain -- a wonderful, well-oiled rhythm between their characters. Dirk is always "the man with a plan," and Al helps him succeed again and again.

Then along comes Eva. Often in this type of film the brainy/sexy babe is reduced to an awkwardly pasted on appendage, but Cruz elevates Eva with her solid acting talents and fits into this boys' club with a breezy confidence and ease.

It also helps that her character gets to save the day from time to time -- all without breaking even one perfectly manicured fingernail.

The movie is also greatly enhanced by the mesmerizing desert landscapes of Morocco, captured to great effect by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey ("The Hours").

The music, featuring both original scoring and some great old standards such as Steppenwolf's late-'60s "Magic Carpet Ride" offer a bit of whimsy to the story.

Sure, "Sahara" is a popcorn flick. But it's a well-executed popcorn flick. Whatever it lacks in substance it makes up for in gloss, humor and thrills, and a good time should be had by all.

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