It’s hard to begrudge authors for being skeptical of film adaptations of their novels, especially Clive Cussler.
After all, he watched his exciting action book Raise the Titanic! and its charismatic lead, Dirk Pitt, turned into colossal bores in a 1980 film nominated for a Worst Picture Razzie.
Sahara, based on Cussler’s 1992 novel, draws its charm and chops from its considerably old-fashioned feel. It relies more on stuntmen and spectacle than it does on software on a desktop. And its soundtrack of classic-rock staples and sweaty locales make it a perfect good ol’ boy vehicle for the underrated Matthew McConaughey, who stars here as Pitt.
Yes, it omits stunning action sequences from the book. The thrilling desert-fort standoff is nowhere to be found. But what adventure book-to-movie adaptation hasn’t done the same? There was no riverside T-Rex chase in Jurassic Park, after all. A thrilling gun battle and chase scene on boat, in addition to the cannon-versus-helicopter finale are good-enough action nuggets.
Despite everything that’s good about Sahara, Cussler still isn’t happy. He wanted Hugh Jackman to star as Pitt, but reportedly has said McConaughey was “who they could get.” And since early last year, there has been no news on a lawsuit he apparently filed against the film’s studio, Paramount. He claims they denied him the script approval that apparently was part of his contract.
Cussler needs to calm down, remember the types of stories he’s writing and stop complaining.
Though Pitt was created before Indiana Jones, he’s a rugged, wisecracking cross between that character’s impossible-situations hero and James Bond’s globe-hopping Casanova. Oh yeah, and when not saving the world, Pitt runs into a guy named Clive Cussler. Yes, the man even writes himself into his books.
Like Dan Brown’s, Cussler’s writings are triumphs of idea and story over actual writing skill. His Pitt novels are the male-reader equivalents of Danielle Steel novels — trashy junk whose only artistic value is to provide escapist, albeit well researched or experienced, genre entertainment.
Given that, Sahara feels like the perfect adaptation of Cussler’s work and a movie that, if it’s a hit, should signal a strong action-director career ahead for Breck Eisner. The son of much-maligned Disney man Michael shows a great sense of pacing, humor and ticking-clock momentum.
In North Africa, a strange disease is driving thousands of North Africans to painful death. After thwarting the murder of United Nations scientist Dr. Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), who is investigating the outbreak, Pitt is thrown headlong into her journey to find the source of the sickness.
The stories throw together a nasty African general and the rebellion against him, a seedy European businessman and Pitt’s search for an ironclad Civil War ship that may have floated into the Sahara desert and the treasure of Confederate gold that might go with it. (Believe it or not, that’s less plot dovetailing than in the book. Story threads about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and an Amelia Earhart-like pilot have frayed away.)
Rather appropriately, McConaughey looks as though he bathed in sweat and sprayed on vaporized axle grease for cologne. He seems aware this is a grade-A B-movie through and through. The same goes for Steve Zahn, who tones down his annoying drawn-out stoner drawl to turn in sufficient sidekick work as Pitt’s right-hand man, Al Giordino.
In fact, why Sahara works is that almost everyone, from cast to crew (check composer Clint Mansell’s use of trumpet with plunger) knows this is effectively silly, mindless entertainment. Cussler writes good books, but maybe if he weren’t so pompously caught up in his own grandeur, he’d see it too.