Even a Clive Cussler newbie who wouldn’t know prototypical Cussler adventurer Dirk Pitt from prototypical porno adventurer Dirk Diggler will know that something’s odd about Dirk as played by Matthew McConaughey in the lunar tract of action geography called Sahara. For one thing, isn’t Dirk — the daring, resourceful, fun-loving, life-guzzling, world-traveling, deep-sea-treasure-hunting hero of so many Cussler novels — supposed to have a personality? For another, did Cussler really specify that Pitt’s desert head scarves should match his Aegean blue eyes at all times?
I’d wager that the answers are yes and no. This insanely busy, exceedingly long, and sometimes endearingly preposterous rendering has simply gotten the directions reversed in its insistence on sticking only to where men-who-make-adventure-flicks have gone before. Operating on the assumption that the globe-hopping plot works by itself — heck, keeping up with the itinerary is logistical challenge enough — the four-man writing team and dashingly named director Breck Eisner invest all their bombastic energy in maneuvering the players from A to Z: This is a story that opens on an ironclad battleship off the coast of Virginia during the Civil War and ends in the deserts of Mali (scenery courtesy of Morocco), in a toxic nuclear-waste site operated by a greedy (and, for good measure, French) industrialist played by all-purpose French villain Lambert Wilson.
In between, as Dirk and his indispensable, joke-cracking, never-gets-the-girl best friend and wingman, Al Giordino (Steve Zahn), poke around looking for a lost ironclad fabled to have drifted to Africa, brilliant World Health Organization doctor Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz, flattened by the Hollywood steamroller) is also nosing around Africa, looking to contain and treat a possible plague; she doesn’t let a mask cover her Cover Girl beauty, but at least she occasionally tugs on latex gloves. Dirk meets Eva cute when he rescues her from an attempted assassination, and the two beam their magnificent white teeth at one another in a semaphore of pulchritude. Dirk meets not-so-handsome warlords. Eva meets tribal chieftains. Al makes jokes. Dirk and Eva find the common denominator in their separate adventure agendas. Dirk and Al’s eccentric, avuncular boss, Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy), shows up to worry about his employees. Personality? Chemistry? A sense of real moviemaking delight in the wanton bravado of Cussler’s La-Z-Boy-thrill derring-do? In Sahara, they’ve all been reduced to Zahn’s charming moments as a second-banana action hero. Every now and then, Al flashes Dirk a grin that says, ”Yeah, fine, that head scarf looks good on you. Now can’t we please have some fun?”