Dirk Pitt doesn’t seem nearly so dashing as Matthew McConaughey. Yes, he has appeared in some 17 rip-snorting Clive Cussler adventure novels. And yes, he is in fact played by McConaughey. But watching McConaughey cavort on couches with Jon Stewart and Jay Leno, or drive into town in a gigantor vehicle all slapped up with Sahara banners, you get the sense that he’s big-hearted and big fun. Watching Pitt on screen, well, he looks a bit smaller.
Much as McConaughey and his cohorts — sidekick Steve Zahn playing sidekick Steve Zahn (again) and Penélope Cruz playing action-inclined World Health Organization doctor Eva Rojas (go figure) — jump and push and grunt to make the thing go, Sahara never accelerates. Dirk is less the “adventurer” of the novels than a very tanned, very bland former Navy SEAL/current treasure hunter/archaeologist, you know, the average capitalist yahoo with little on his mind but the next haul; though he learns the usual lesson and saves a few lives, he also finds his treasure. In this case, it’s Confederate gold, stashed aboard a Civil War-era armored ship (the Ship of Death, a.k.a. the Ironclad, imaged in introductory framing flashback). The boys theorize the ship (supposedly a legend) went lost during a Virginia battle, and somehow, over the last 140 years, landed itself in — or rather, under — the African desert.
Okay, well, it’s Clive Cussler. Or not: reportedly, he’s suing the studio for messing with his characters, as he envisions Pitt to be more robust than the movie’s version. (This even as he has licensed two more pictures after this one, a deal over which he might be gnashing teeth or whatever it is that adventure writers do.) While Cussler surely has his own reasons to be upset, the movie has enough problems that everyone involved might accept a piece of the blame. Unimaginative and slow-moving (both major errors in the adventure playbook), the film is also oddly out of step with its own seeming “lesson” (plundering is bad) delivering a retro-racist plot about the dark continent and locals in need of saving by the great white (treasure) hunter.
Unlike Lara Croft, Al and Dirk aren’t independently wealthy, and neither do they make a living by their discoveries; they’re ion it mostly for the thrill. But they have been chasing this particular legend for years, and so, when they discover proof of its possible existence (a coin that Dirk holds up and admires repeatedly, so it can glint in the light and serve as objective correlative for his poetic ambition), they cajole their usual backer, the charmingly irascible Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy), to lend them money and his boat for their African excursion. The catch: they’ve also got to bring along the good doctor, tracking the origins of a deadly virus in Mali. She brings along her buddy doctor, Oshodi (Clint Dyer), whose function amid the myriad dangers encountered in West Africa you can probably guess.
Also invested in the heroes’ traipsing about are malevolent French industrialist Massarde (Lambert Wilson), who only lacks a mustache to twirl, and a corrupt Mali general, Kazim (Lennie James). While these two are part in cahoots and part competing for power, money, and turf, they’re most clearly on hand to provide the one-two-punch climax. Kazim’s violent takedown serves as precursor to the Eurovillain’s exponentially more expensive explosiveness. At some point the CIA enters the picture, in the form of Agent Carl (Delroy Lindo, who mostly looks like he has something better to do), but the challenges to U.S. corporate and political overreaching seem an afterthought. The focus here is action: blowing stuff up, driving fast, riding camels, and blowing more stuff up.
No surprise, all these plots — whether engineered by villains or heroes — rehearse imperial fantasies at the expense of African tribespeople (no cities in this Africa, just impoverished villages and the occasional marketplace), whose lives are ruined by the intruders’ shenanigans, whether environmental, biological, or cultural. It’s always the way: as one character puts it, “No one cares about Africa.” Such language here just seems preemptive, as if observing the point means no one is responsible for addressing it.