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'Sahara': Stupid From the Heat

A Would-Be Adventure Proves as Irritating as Sand in the Shorts

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page C05

"Sahara" is a mediocrity wrapped inside a banality, toasted in a nice, fresh cliche.

It's based on the dubious proposition that Matthew McConaughey is uniquely charming and charismatic. His attractiveness, however, seems to consist of a vulpine leer and a mass of tendrilly blond hair and eyes that beam with self-adoration. He is very fond of the cut muscles in his arms and one suspects he anticipates that all of us will be as well. Not my idea of a movie star, but then "Sahara" isn't my idea of a movie.

Penelope Cruz, Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn are a bunch of clueless gold diggers in "Sahara." (Keith Hamshere -- Paramount Via AP)

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At least in general terms, it's the one in which a gang of wacky Western quipsters show up in Africa, which they barely notice, and race around having a whale of a time while pretending to care about the ecology and the people, even if they're really looking for gold.

Almost nothing works. McConaughey is paired with two love interests, Penelope Cruz and hippie-dippie Steve Zahn, giving what has sadly turned out, after a promising start, to be his only trope -- the disorganized, slightly panicky flower child. Cruz is a World Health Organization doc on the prowl for a plague in sub-Saharan Africa -- Morocco stands in for Mali -- while buddies Mac and Z play marine salvage experts Dirk Pitt and Al Giordino, ex-SEALs obsessed with the idea that a Confederate ironclad laden with gold somehow ended far up the Niger. All three throw together for an upriver trek, along with assorted expendables who are quickly enough taken care of. For a PG-13 movie, by the way, the body count is high and the violence surprisingly abundant.

The three principals appear not to care about each other and have almost no chemistry at all -- possibly Cruz and McConaughey saved it for when the camera is off, as they are now engaged. Worse, you never see them think. Their eyes remain empty throughout and the movie lacks the charm and cleverness of "National Treasure" of last summer, its forerunner in the fit-for-the-whole-family sweepstakes.

As the movie works it out -- after it's finished stereotyping black African dictators, noble Muslim guerrillas, French Eurotrash, the CIA -- the ultimate heart of darkness proves to be corrupt Western technology, which our two-man-one-woman commando team decide to blow, and then not blow. That is, when they are not looking for the Confederate ironclad or exchanging wisecracks wholly lacking in either wisdom or crackle.

Much of the blame for that must fall on the 34-year-old director, Breck Eisner, son of Disney's Michael Eisner. (Breck made this picture for Paramount, where dad used to work.)

I suppose what annoys me most, other than the lack of invention, is the movie's complete lack of interest in Africa. This is a great, tragic tapestry of a land, and one of the most profound experiences a Westerner can have. (I've been, twice.) To the bozos on-screen, Africa's just a lot of sand and, you know, poor people.

Sahara (127 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 and has a great deal of knife, gun and explosion violence.

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