True confession. I've never read a single Clive Cussler book. This guy's been cranking out action/adventure thrillers starring Dirk Pitt since THE MEDITERRANEAN CAPER (1973). There have been 23 Dirk Pitt novels to date, with the latest, HAVANA STORM, published just last year. That's a substantial amount of books devoted to a character once described as "an underwater James Bond". Pitt, in the books, is an agent for NUMA, the National Underwater and Marine Agency. Cussler's first big blockbuster bestseller, RAISE THE TITANIC ,was filmed in 1980 with Richard (LOGAN'S RUN) Jordan as Pitt. The film was a box office dud and no more Pitt films were made until SAHARA (2005).
As I said, I've never read a Cussler book but I can safely say that the book SAHARA is better than the movie version. It has to be because this film just isn't very good.
The biggest problem with the film is the casting of Matthew McConaughey as Dirk Pitt. I know McConaughey won a Best Actor Oscar last year for THE DALLAS BUYER'S CLUB but SAHARA doesn't call for him to stretch his acting muscles in the least. He comes across as the standard McConaughey surfer dude, along with a semi-idiot side-kick Al (Steve Zahn). These guys are supposed to be accomplished marine salvage experts, crack divers, explorers, scientists and historians. But I don't believe it for a minute.
I suspect McConaughey latched on to this property as a potential franchise starter, a series of Dirk Pitt adventure films to be based on the pre-existing Cussler novels. It worked for Matt Damon with the Bourne films based on the Robert Ludlum novels (BOURNE IDENTITY (2002), BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004), BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007) and BOURNE LEGACY (2012)). McConaughey wold later try his hand with another potential franchise starter with THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011), based on the popular series of books by Michael Connelly. And let's not forget Tom Cruise's utterly misbegotten turn as Lee Child's JACK REACHER (2012) (a film I absolutely refuse to see).
But McConaughey, as good looking, athletic and charming as he is, just isn't believable as Pitt. The screenplay doesn't help either. It was written by four people (which is never a good sign): James V. Hart, Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and John C. Richards. Geez, the book was already written. It couldn't have been that hard to adapt to the screen.
Director Breck Eisner does a serviceable enough job with some well staged action sequences but the slightly comic tone of much of the proceedings robs the film of any real sense of jeopardy for the characters. The score, by Clint Mansell, alternates between classic rock tunes and an annoying use of Bond like "wah-wah-wahs" in the action sequences.
The story is the kind of far fetched nonsense that probably reads better in a book than as a movie. A Civil War era ironclad ship is supposed to have sailed from the east coast of the U.S. to the west coast of Africa in 1865. Pitt is sure this vessel actually made the voyage and he's determined to find the ship (and it's alleged cache of gold Confederate coins) no matter what. At the same time, fetching World Health Organization doctor Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), is investigating the outbreak of a mysterious disease in Mali. Before you know it, Pitt, Al and Eva's paths cross and the two separate plot lines become entwined.
Shot on location, SAHARA was an expensive movie to make, which made it's ultimate box-office failure a hard pill to swallow, a failure which put the kibosh on any more McConaughey/Pitt films. Adding to the failure is the decision by the producers to attempt to launch a franchise about an "underwater James Bond" with a story that contains absolutely no underwater scenes.
The only reason to watch SAHARA can be summed up in two words: Penelope Cruz. Not that she's a great actress, but she's certainly easy on the eyes. If you absolutely must watch a movie entitled SAHARA, check out the 1943 film starring Humphrey Bogart as a tank commander in North Africa during World War II. Shot in Southern California and in black and white, with a budget less than McConaughey's salary, it's an infinitely better film.