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Sahara (2005)

Dirk Pitt. Adventure has a new name.

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 127 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 12a

Coming so soon after the brilliant parody of Cousteau-type exploration in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), any film about underwater adventurers risks seeming ridiculous (not to mention inferior). Yet so wholeheartedly does ‘Sahara’, adapted from Clive Cussler’s novel of the same name, embrace its own innate silliness that it could almost be a youthful prequel to Anderson’s film, set before the mid-life rot takes hold, but with characters every bit as absurd – and it is also capable of delivering its own parodies of everything from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to ‘Ishtar’ to just about the entire James Bond series.

In 1865, at the end of the American Civil War, an Ironclad battleship with a cargo-load of Confederate gold coins went missing. Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey), ex-Navy SEAL, altruistic marine salvager and all-round adventurer, has long dreamt of finding the ship and its treasure – and a lead in Nigeria takes him and his long-time buddy Al Giordano (Steve Zahn) to the most unlikely resting place for an American waterborne vessel – deep in the desert of wartorn Mali. Joining forces with Dr Eva Rojas, a World Health Organisation operative seeking the source of a deadly outbreak, these two fish-out-of-water must contend with a corrupt French businessman (Lambert Wilson) and a ruthless warlord (Lennie James) – and in the middle of the sweltering Sahara, the rusty old Ironclad is once again on the frontline of a vicious civil war.

“Buddy, I don’t think we can fix this thing”, says Al to Dirk as they stumble upon a wrecked plane in the desert, before the scene cuts to the intrepid duo racing across the dunes using the plane’s wings and chassis as an improvised windsurfer – and so in little under a minute ‘Sahara’ revisits and updates Robert Aldrich’s ‘The Flight of the Phoenix’ (1965) with far more energy and charm than the recent remake Flight of the Phoenix (2004) could muster over its near two hour duration. This is because ‘Sahara’, the winning feature debut of Breck ‘Taken’ Eisner, is a model of vigorous economy, right from its opening credit sequence, where a circling pan around the objects, photos and nicknacks in an empty office introduces the main character’s history and dreams more effectively than any amount of awkward verbal exposition.

‘Sahara’ has a quirky script, hilarious character interaction, lavish sets, and never takes itself too seriously – but most importantly of all, it always cuts to the chase, so that, amidst all the feats of good old-fashioned derring-do, one barely has time to notice the way one scene is often linked to the next by wild coincidence and little else. For although its story may be founded largely on sand, you will be too busy being entertained to care – and given its many open-ended characters and casual references to other escapades, this could well be the beginning of a beautiful franchise.

It's Got: Two very different kinds of ship of the desert; a nifty boat-chase manoeuvre known as "the Panama" (so-named because Dirk and Al first came up with it in Nicaragua, when they THOUGHT they were in Panama); the line "Ill find the bomb, you get the girl".

It Needs: To be taken with a pinch of sand.


Two fish-out-of-water and a doctor from WHO seek a ship of the desert in this deliriously daft adventure caper.