At the start of their commentary for Paramount’s new Sahara DVD, director Breck Eisner and star/executive producer Matthew McConaughey remember their early conversations about the projects. They wanted “action adventure with comedy, not action comedy with adventure,” says McConaughey. Right, Eisner agrees, and “It’s not shtick comedy, it’s character-based comedy.” All good. They had ambition, they had fun.
And then they get to the Dirk part, that is, their much-considered intentions for their hero, their plans to create the “dynamic of Dirk,” which McConaughey describes as being “at home in many places.” The actor has particular ideas of what Dirk’s all about: “I was trying to shine light on what were the definite truths of Dirk, things that I thought were pure Dirk essence.” And what would that essence be? The guy is cocky but righteously so, aggressive but only because he has to be, tanned and beautiful by dint of he working overtime and enthusiastically, digging and diving and finding treasures.
While a second commentary track, by Eisner solo, provides more technical and production-specific information, much of it more interesting than the film’s derivative plot, this track is all about the Dirkness. He doesn’t even show up in the credits sequence, except as pictures pinned to a wall, and yet the guys like the slow camera pan around his office, because all photos and clippings and maps are, no doubt, “a really cool way to introduce Dirk.” You’re getting the idea here: every other scene is a means to show the zen of Dirk, the grace of Dirk, the vibrancy and charm and dash of Dirk. The point is not trivial, either, as Dirk is the center of 17 super-popular Clive Cussler adventure novels on which the film is based. Still, the Dirk-doting is remarkable. Even the other extras, the behind-the-scenes doc, “Across the Sands of Sahara,” “Visualizing Sahara” (on the design), and “Cast and Crew Wrap Film,” showing how much everyone liked each other, find ways to get to it.
All that said, and much as Dirk and his cohorts — sidekick Al (Steve Zahn) and Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz), an action-inclined World Health Organization doctor — jump and push and shoot 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, 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.
Unimaginative and strangely poky, the movie is also 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. DVD-commentating McConaughey says, “I… like the scale of what the disease is. It’s horrible but it’s not like a horror story. It’s a nice balance. You don’t wanna have whatever that disease is, but it’s not Dawn of the Dead.” Indeed, it’s all about balance, as Eisner agrees on another angle: to do a PG-13 movie to achieve a “careful balance: too soft and you alienate the young viewers, too hard and you alienate the families.”
Eva 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. “We really blew that thing up,” smiles Eisner following one rock-em-sock scene that kills Sandecker’s boat.
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.