I started reading Clive Cussler‘s Dirk Pitt novels starting with Raise the Titanic back in high school. I realize now that, despite copious amounts of not-quite graphic sex and a splash of R-rated language, I was in the ideal age group at the time to appreciate Cussler’s writing. I grew up and the Dirk Pitt novels didn’t. To be fair, some of the earlier works to follow on the heals of his breakthrough hit, Raise the Titanic, such as Vixen 03 and Night Probe showed a real maturing of his style. By the mid-80’s, however, Cussler seemed to fall into the trap of trying to top himself with every novel and his stories became increasingly outlandish and began to smack of “Bond-lite”.
The novel Sahara fits into this later period of Cussler’s writing. I had stopped reading his books before this one was published, so I cannot directly comment on how closely the plot details stick to the novel. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d have to say, “not close at all.”
This isn’t, of course, the first Cussler novel to be adapted to the screen, but the results of the first attempt, 1980’s Raise the Titanic, were so creatively and financially disastrous, that it’s no surprise that people waited 25 years to try again. That earlier film managed to take everything that was exciting about the original novel and make it ponderous and dull. The video footage from the 1985 Robert Ballard expedition that actually located the wreck was probably more exciting, even on the days when they didn’t find the ship.
At least Sahara is not boring. It hardly has a brain in its noisy little head, but it never puts you to sleep. It follows Cussler’s indestructible hero, Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) as he searches for a long lost Confederate Civil War ironclad that he believes has inexplicably turned up in Africa. His loyal sidekicks, Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) and Rudy Gunn (Rainn Wilson), think he’s slightly nuts and his employer, Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy), thinks he’s completely nuts. The names should all be familiar to fans of the books but the characters on screen will not be. They no more resemble Cussler’s characters than they do the Twelve Apostles.
Pitt’s search crosses the path of Dr. Eva Rosas (Penelope Cruz), a World Health Organization doctor investigating a lethal epidemic. She’s also different from the typical heroine of a Cussler novel, insofar as she keeps her clothes on. While this is probably a concession to the PG-13 rating, it defies the convention that Cussler’s women all tend to be modern, liberated and inevitably destined for Pitt’s bed. Dirk and Eva’s respective searches put them on the wrong side of the local military dictator and an European industrialist whose goals, even when the end credits have started and the lights come up in the theater, are less than clear. As is required for movies such as this, large numbers of people proceed to try to kill our heroes and many things blow up.
McConaughey makes an extremely credible action hero, even he hardly resembles the character described in the books. I think a young Tom Berenger would have made the ideal Pitt. This movie is competently-made entertainment that will not tax your brain too heavily. The action is lively and well staged, but if you looking for a little more steak with your sizzle, either of the Jason Bourne movies would be a better choice.