Indy might have some serious competition. Not in a direct sense (Indiana Jones franchise is well established and is set in 30s and 40s, way before this movie), but in a “charismatic-hero-who-punches-first-and-asks-questions-later” kinda way. A fast-paced, intelligent adventure movie is difficult to find these days (“The Lord of the Rings” lacked the speed, and “The Rundown” lacked the intelligence), so Sahara is a bit of fresh air in a stale genre.
A few months ago “A National Treasure” made an impressive turn in theaters (and I hope Nicolas Cage comes back in a sequel or two), but he movie ultimately took itself too seriously. The adventure was fun, no doubt, but many of its themes required a little explanation, which slows the pace down, and you don’t want that to happen. What you want is the main character to “save the f***ing day”, never losing a brilliant smile, and getting a few lethal-looking bruises along the way. In this case, the hero Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey), delivers both smiles and bruises with unlimited charisma.
Another thing you want in an adventure movie is a quick setup (Sahara manages to describe the characters quite well in the opening credits – in about 3 minutes). Then you want a seemingly unrelated story to take place miles away (to introduce secondary characters, the obligatory damsel in distress – Eva, played by Penelope Cruz, and her own erratic world of politics, non-existent diseases, and feuding African tribes). Now let’s get back to the main heroes – Matthew is looking for a ghost ironclad ship (from the days of civil war) that may or may not be buried somewhere … in Africa. There may or may not be treasure on that ship. Steve Zahn is a best friend and comrade in arms, who reluctantly assists, and serves as a buffer between Matthew and his “boss”, Admiral Jim Sandecker (William H. Macy) who decides which expeditions to undertake, and which – to discard as “a crazy idea”. Guess what he ends up getting into?
While the plot is walking the line with some of its twists, the pace is so fast, and the characters are so engaging that we don’t have time to sit back and analyze what’s going on. We don’t need to – it’s an adventure film. Plus, the characters really do provide some of the best elements – the villains (Yves Massarde, played by Lambert Wilson and General Zateb Kazim, played by Lennie James) are great in their madness and amusing in occasional conscience and guilt trips. Despite the hard-to-believe subject matter, we care for the good guys and dislike the villains.
The locales are great (dunes have this habit of looking soothing and terrifying at the same time). The chases are wild, and explosions – loud. And in the end, even though we knew all along the world will be saved, and a disaster averted, still we sigh a relief because we’re hooked from the beginning. Sahara is fun, short, light (without being stupid), and overall exciting. The cast works well, the story moves along without stumbles, and this is what an adventure film should be like.