Do you want a summer movie that is full of fun characters, great actors, explosive action, an enjoyably ludicrous plot, and a great sense of humor? Then do I have the movie for you!
That movie is Sahara, released in 2005 and starring Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz, Steve Zahn, and William H. Macy.
Images: Paramount Pictures
Now, let’s get the bad news out of the way first. This movie bombed, and it bombed hard. Its total box-office take barely covered half of the money it took to make and distribute. It flopped so hard (it lost around $105 million) that Clive Cussler, the author of the book on which the film was based, sued the film’s producer and production company. It sounds like Cussler basically argued that the movie bombed because he wasn’t consulted on the script, which doesn’t make him sound like an arrogant jerk or anything.
The movie was supposed to start a series, but it flopped so hard that the series never materialized, and likely never will. The movie’s opening credits even proclaim it to be “A Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt Adventure,” implying that it is one of many. Sadly, it isn’t. The movie didn’t get great reviews, it has a 38% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the “Critics Consensus” being “a mindless adventure flick with a preposterous plot,” a condescending dismissal of an extremely enjoyable film. Reason No. 20394 why I don’t like Rotten Tomatoes.
Because this movie is great. I unironically love it. Yes, the plot is ludicrous, but the movie is clearly aware of its own ridiculousness and pokes fun at itself multiple times. The actors have wonderful chemistry, the action sequences are exciting, the soundtrack is great, and the overall vibe is James Bond meets Indiana Jones. It’s a damn shame the intended series never materialized; I would have loved to have spent more time with these characters. Although I could potentially see this property being revived as a Netflix series or something, that could be fun.
Clive Cussler has been writing Dirk Pitt novels since 1976. I’ve read a few of them, and they are indeed ridiculous but also quite a bit of fun. In this sense, the movie is a very accurate approximation of Cussler’s work. His books are airport novels, not particularly “artistic” or “literary” but who cares? They’re lots of fun and I have no problem with them. Sahara is the eleventh book in the series and was published in 1992. Dirk Pitt is an adventurer in the classic mold of pulp adventure heroes, complete with monosyllabic tough-guy name, who has all kinds of ridiculous adventures and is a big hit with the ladies.
He is perfectly embodied in the movie by Matthew McConaughey, whose relaxed surfer-dude charm and effortless charisma make him an extremely likable action hero. But the real scene-stealer for me is Steve Zahn as Dirk’s best friend Al Giordino. I love Al so much, he’s one of my all-time favorite movie sidekicks. Everything he says is so gosh darn funny. He gets all the funniest lines and his wry delivery of them is just perfect. Zahn and McConaughey have flawless chemistry and are entirely believable as two guys who have been best friends for their entire lives and been on all kinds of wacky adventures together. You get the feeling that Dirk and Al know each other so well that they could finish each other’s sentences.
The movie’s fantastically-ludicrous plot involves…well, I’ll let my good buddy Al handle that for me. “Hey,” Al says to Dirk late in the film, “you know how it is when you see someone that you haven’t seen since high school, and they got some dead-end job, and they’re married to some woman that hates them, and they got, like, three kids who thinks he’s a joke? Wasn’t there some point where he stood back and said, Bob! Don’t take that job! Bob! Don’t marry that harpy! You know?”
“Your point?” Dirk asks him.
“Well,” Al continues, “we’re in the desert, looking for the source of a river pollutant, using as our map a cave drawing of a Civil War gunship, which is also in the desert. So I was just wondering when we’re gonna have to sit down and re-evaluate our decision-making paradigm?”
“I don’t know,” Dirk replies. “It seems to be working so far.”
That quote perfectly encapsulates the movie’s self-aware sense of humor, as well as giving you some idea of what the plot is about. Something is polluting the water in Africa with deadly red algae, and if it reaches the Atlantic it’ll spread across the globe and basically everyone will be doomed. Tied into this is a lost Civil War ironclad that, uh, somehow ended up in the Sahara Desert. Yes, it’s utterly ridiculous, but when the movie is this enjoyable, who cares how ridiculous it is? For what it’s worth, if I recall correctly the book’s plot is even more ridiculous, since somehow Abe Lincoln himself was on the Civil War ship. You know, the ship that ended up in the Sahara Desert. The movie, wisely, omits this detail.
The villains behind the water-poisoning are a corrupt French businessman named Yves Massarde and an African dictator named General Kazim. Massarde is played by Lambert Wilson, who you might remember as The Merovingian from the two Matrix sequels, although he has an extensive filmography dating back to 1977. Kazim is played by a wonderful and tremendously underrated English actor named Lennie James, who is perhaps best known for playing Morgan in The Walking Dead. I love James as an actor, he elevates everything he’s in. These two very capable actors make for a dastardly pair of villains.
The rest of the supporting cast is also a lot of fun. Penelope Cruz plays Dr. Eva Rojas, a World Health Organization scientist investigating the cause of the red algae plague. Eva is tough, smart and capable, and although it is inevitable that she and Dirk will eventually hook up, it is very much to the movie’s credit that this doesn’t happen until literally the last scene in the movie, making her more than a disposable love interest or damsel in distress.
Dirk and Al’s boss, crusty Admiral James Sandecker, is played by William H. Macy, another actor who I don’t think is capable of giving a bad performance. There’s also Rudi Gunn, Dirk and Al’s nerdy pal who plays an important role in saving the world. Rudi is played by Dwight Schrute himself, Rainn Wilson, and is another very likable sidekick.
The movie also has a great soundtrack. It uses pop music in a manner similar to the Guardians of the Galaxy. The music serves the movie very well and contributes greatly to its already considerable entertainment value. I also quite liked the musical score done by Clint Mansell, known for his collaborations with Darren Aronofsky, and whose composition “Lux Aeterna” for Aronofsky’s 2000 film Requiem for A Dream is one of the most haunting pieces of cinematic music I’ve ever heard. I haven’t seen Requiem for A Dream (and I don’t intend to given how disturbing it is supposed to be), but Lux Aeterna is an incredible piece of music.
The movie is also action-packed and is full of memorable and creative action sequences, my favorite of which is probably when Dirk fights an-uber henchman on a helicopter landing tower surrounded by solar panels. An uber-henchman is a term I just invented for the guy in every action movie who’s the particularly badass and resilient bad guy, the main villain’s second-in-command who takes a ton of punishment throughout the movie but always comes back for more, before dying in a spectacular fashion. For example, one of my favorite uber-henchmen is Mr. Stamper from the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. In Sahara, Dirk defeats the uber-henchman by drop-kicking him off the helicopter landing tower, where he subsequently crash-lands on a solar panel. It’s a very satisfying villain death. And the film’s action-packed climax involves a helicopter, a vintage car, dynamite, and the aforementioned Civil War ship in the middle of the desert.
Sahara has everything you could want from a summer movie. It’s got great characters who are played by actors who have awesome chemistry with each other. It’s got despicable villains, exciting action, a goofily ridiculous plot, and a groovy soundtrack. It’s a ton of fun and it ends on a perfectly upbeat note that leaves the viewer just feeling good. Good guys win, bad guys lose, and everyone has a good time.
What’s not to like?