(2005) ** 1/2 Pg-13
127 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: Breck Eisner. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, Lambert Wilson, Glynn Turman.

In Hotel Rwanda, Nick Nolte sarcastically sized up Don Cheadle's plight this way: "You're not even a nigger. You're an African." Samuel Jackson, in In My Country, lamented, "As long as it's black folks being killed, nobody gives a shit." Just when America was surely ready to take useful notice of African politics, we get Sahara, a dumb action movie in which an evil African tyrant excuses his rapine behavior: "Don't worry: it's Africa. Nobody cares about Africa." Ooh, he's bad!

Since Clive Cussler is suing Paramount Pictures over the direction they've taken his novel Sahara, his fans have sharpened their sticks. Sahara is one of 17 "Dirk Pitt Adventures" written by Cussler, who some may recall was first burned by Hollywood with the 1980 release Raise the Titanic, starring Richard Jordan as Pitt. This time, Matthew McConaughey stars as the ultra-confident, treasure-hunting Pitt, and as long as we have to have the Hollywood equivalent of an airline read, Sahara fills the bill quite nicely. Brainless and lacking in character development, Sahara energetically goes through its action paces, making for a mostly unpretentious thrill ride.

It all has something to do with a lost Civil War battleship, the search for which is complicated by the disease Penelope Cruz's fetching W.H.O. doctor is tracking, and the nefarious business conspiracy of the African warlord and a French industrialist (Lambert Wilson of the Matrix sequels and Catwoman, once more an oily Euro-baddie). William H. Macy plays the stogie-smoking Admiral who has Pitt's back; Steve Zahn is Pitt's comic relief sidekick Al Giordino. Though Zahn's character was burly and serious Italian muscle on the page, his snappy, second-nature teamwork with Pitt helps to keep the movie humming. Just don't expect characterization to be anything more than an afterthought.

It's all about the action, really, and director Breck Eisner overcomes bad editing with great production value and an eyeful of Morrocan scenery that also thickens the story's thin veneer of credibility. Eisner's expository, Rear Window-style credits have been done to death, but rarely executed this well. The fast-paced first act is pleasantly disorienting; as in a James Bond movie (which the swanky muted trumpet riffs consciously evoke during the action scenes), the plot grows increasingly preposterous, as Dirk commandeers both a sand yacht and the warlord's rare 1936 Voisin C28 sedan. By the climax, a last stand in the fabled Iron Clad (oh, like they weren't going to find it?), the audience may concur with the characters' frequent awe-struck assessment "That's not possible!"

Sahara is the first theatrical feature directed by Eisner (yes, the son of outgoing Disney CEO Michael Eisner), but I'm shocked, shocked that you would even suggest that he hasn't paid his dues. Eisner makes annoying use of pop music ("Sweet Home Alabama" and "Magic Carpet Ride" should be retired before any more critics die needlessly) and hasn't got a new idea in him, but as Hollywood actioners go these days, this one's quite tolerable in its guilty-pleasure way. Feel free to saddle up.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0 Surround

Street date: 8/30/2005

Distributor: Paramount Home Video

Sahara is a new film, so the DVD transfer is quite dynamic (though some shimmering is occasionally evident) and the sound is state-of-the-art. Moreover, Paramount packs hours of content onto its one-disc special edition (don't forget to get the widescreen edition, and not the dreaded full-screen version). Everything you always wanted to know about Sahara and plenty you didn't even know you wanted to know rolls out in two screen-specific commentaries, three featurettes, and four deleted scenes.

Director Breck Eisner supplies a nuts-and-bolts director's commentary, and sits for a lively chat with Matthew McConaughey on a second track. As one would expect, both commentaries discuss the filmmakers' plans for the long-dormant project and the details of how it was realized. Honestly, the redundant commentaries hardly seem necessary, but I guess film-school students can geek out to Eisner while more casual movie buffs can enjoy the looser Eisner-McConaughey conversation.

The deleted scenes (totaling 4:52) include "Kitty Mannock's Crash," "Finding Kitty Mannock's Plane," "The Long Kiss," and "Oceanographers Dying in the Desert." The scenes, presented in widescreen, look pretty good (they were nearly finished segments), and each has optional commentary by Eisner and McConaughey about what they liked about the scenes and why they were ultimately trimmed.

All three featurettes are in full-screen (as opposed to anamorphic widescreen), but the production value is exceptional and the content provides an all-access pass to the filming of Sahara. "Across the Sands of Sahara" (15:00) is a general "making-of" doc that focuses on the unique challenges of shooting in Morocco (sandstorms, flooding, locusts...) and preparing unique stunts, like the high-speed camel-train chase. The interviewees are Eisner, McConaughey, William H. Macy, Steve Zahn, Rainn Wilson, Penelope Cruz, co-screenwriter James V. Hart, and producers Stephanie Austin, Mace Neufeld, and Karen Baldwin.

"Visualizing Sahara" (20:06) digs deeper, providing glimpses of storyboard and design art, animatics, and B-roll footage in an exhaustive look at the film's look, stunts, and effects. Eisner explains the development of the "Sahara Gold Filter" to achieve the golden-hued desert photography, and the visual-effects artists break down the complex fistfight finale atop a mostly non-existent solar-energy plant. Production designer Allan Cameron, DP Seamus McGarvey, costume designer Anna Sheppard, co-1st-assistant-director (Morocco) Ahmed Hatimi, visual effects supervisor Mara Bryan, art director Giles Masters, special-effects supervisor Dominic Tuohy, co-screenwriter Joshua Oppenheimer, McConaughey, Zahn, Austin, and Neufeld join Eisner here.

"Making Sahara" (9:45) is a wrap-film made for the cast and crew to celebrate the end of production. Though this is mostly very "inside" (Hey, remember that guy you never met?! Awwww....), the film begins with a humorous accounting of the project's scope: nearly 5,000 extras and over 100 sets and locations in seven cities in three countries. Paramount rounds out the disc with an anti-piracy ad that pops up when the disc comes to life, as well as previews for The Longest Yard, The Honeymooners, Airplane: The "Don't Call Me Shirley" Edition, The John Wayne Collection, and (ooh!) Martin Scorsese's highly-anticipated doc No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.
Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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