HOLLYWOOD should have officially retired the desert -- like the sand-duned equivalent of a Michael Jordan jersey -- after the 1962 "Lawrence of Arabia." David Lean's epic made such a gorgeous symphony out of that arid wilderness, no other movies could ever hope to reprise its magic. Although the desert has a certain power in such films as "The English Patient" and "Three Kings," it's never been the same since Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif hut-hutted their camels across the Nefu.
But that hasn't stopped "Sahara." The story, based on a novel from the Dirk Pitt series by Clive Cussler, is about a missing ironclad battleship from the Civil War era that has obsessed master explorer Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) for most of his life. Always determined to find evidence that the battleship took a one-way voyage to Africa, Dirk and his "quippy sidekick" Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) get their opportunity when they are working off the African coast for a marine agency leader, Adm. James Sandecker (William H. Macy).
Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz and Steve Zahn find arid adventure in "Sahara."
When Dirk saves Eva Rojas (Cruz) from Nigerian marauders, a friendship begins. It turns out Rojas is a World Health Organization physician trying to track the cause of a mysterious affliction affecting people along the Niger River. Of course their agendas and destinies converge -- in this case, in the desert of Mali when all three find themselves fighting an autocratic African general who is exploiting natural resources and killing the Tuareg tribe.
"Sahara" is pretty much an excuse for McConaughey (one of several executive producers) to flex his gym-toned assets and play tough on boats, trains and camels. (For equal-opportunity ogling, "Sahara" is also a chance to appreciate Cruz's sultry pulchritude, but there are better Penelope movies for that.) But despite a plethora of high-action chases, gun battles, boat battles and the various exotic locales, McConaughey remains more buffed than compelling. He's not helped by a two-hour convolution of episodes that are too busy imitating other, better movies to think about doing something interesting of their own. "Sahara" apes elements from "Lawrence of Arabia." It even steals a little James Bond business for its score. And it tries to reprise, unsuccessfully, the witty zest of the Indiana Jones series. Unfortunately, McConaughey's no Harrison Ford. And no one cracks the whip of originality. If you're still anxious to see this movie, bring a lot of water, wear a sunproof headdress and be sure to tell your friends where you are. The desert can be a lonely place.
SAHARA (PG-13, 124 minutes) -- Contains action violence. Area theaters.