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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits


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2005 (2005) - Paramount/Bristol Bay (Paramount)

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/B-

Want to feel old? It's been SIXTEEN YEARS since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade roared across the silver screen and into the sunset and in the interim we've been teased by false alarms and fading promises of Indy riding again as soon as Spielberg, Lucas and Ford (LLC) ever agree that their thumbs are warm enough to saddle up one more (let's be honest - last) time.

Many candidates for the crown of "King of Rip-Roaring Movie Adventure" have come and gone and with few exceptions - Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow being one - many have missed the mark for one reason or another. The latest contender is Sahara, from the "Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt Adventure" of the same name, and while it doesn't quite strike the mother lode, it does offer some good old-fashioned big-screen adventure.

Opening with a prologue showing the Confederate iron-clad ship, the Texas, escaping Richmond and slipping through a Union blockade at the end of the Civil War, we then leap to the present day with plucky W.H.O. (World Health Organization) doctor Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz) as she tracks the source of a disease that's spreading in Nigeria. When she's attacked by a mysterious black-garbed warrior, she's rescued by Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey).

Dirk's a renowned adventurer and he's got a lead on the location of the Texas, which has somehow made it across the Atlantic and up the river into Mali, currently desert and torn by their own civil war. When Dirk and his sidekick, Al Giordino (Steve Zahn), head up the river with an auxiliary sidekick to look for the fabled ship, they give Eva and her doctor partner a ride upriver to aid their search, dropping them along the way.

When Dirk and friends are attacked by troops looking for the doctors, controlled by kleptocrat General Kazim (Lennie James), they discover that there's more to this disease than first meets the eye and that it may have something to do with an unctuous French businessman, Yves Massarde (Lambert Wilson - working his Matrix sequels Merovingian shtick again), who has a nifty solar incinerator in the middle of the desert.

With mysterious diseases, mythic ships, warring factions, camel/car/boat/train chases, a never-explained black-robed goon (Darth Mustafa?) and Steve Zahn to juggle, there are a lot of balls for director Breck Eisner (yes, the son of Disney destroyer, Michael) to keep in the air, but with a script written by a committee of four (credited) scribes, he doesn't prevent some from dropping.

What he does get right is the epic sense of scale a tale set in the desert requires. Sweeping vistas of sand with cars and people mere specks emphasize the isolation of the locations. Using nearly-seamless CGI (except for things like the power plant which are obviously impossible), the sands of Morocco where the film was shot become the exotic alien locales of Mali and Nigeria and there's a solidity in using hundreds of extras that tens of thousands of CG minions still can't match, though digital tricks are used to multiply the numbers.

The action set pieces are also triumphs of coherent shooting and editing which nail the excitement without degenerating into Avid overkill. (I'm looking at you, Michael Bay.) While it's not a "prestige" release, here's to hoping that cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Hours, High Fidelity) and editor Andrew MacRitchie (Die Another Day) get some Oscar love next winter. They make Sahara a "movie" and not just a glorified music video.

While the action and adventure are in good hands, I couldn't help but feel that I wasn't having much fun and I lay that at the doorstep of the film's uneven tone and muddled script. There's just something not-very-fun about African civil war, peasants dying of pollution and ill-explained corporate greed and it drags the film down. Sure, the Indiana Jones movies had the ever-boo-hissable Nazis, but it wasn't like we took a trip through the camps, you know? The pitch-dark Temple of Doom never quite overcame its brutality to children and heaviness weighs down Sahara, too.

Adding to the disconnect is the casting of McConaughey and Zahn - they're supposed to be elite ex-Navy sailor/adventurers, but the comic slant of their performances had me half-expecting them to start complaining about the lame surfing in the desert. While Clive Cussler had approval over the cast and McConaughey labored for years to get this film on screen (he's an Executive Producer), he just wasn't believable in this context. If the film was lighter in tone, then sure, it would've been fine, but with heavy story comes the need for a lead with gravitas and naked bongo boy isn't it. It's not that he's not charming and Zahn's not funny, but that they don't match the tone of the darker scenes.

As for Cruz - the poor man's Salma Hayek - she starts off the movie a covered-up doctor and ends up presenting bounteous bosoms bursting forth from a black tank top, covered in dirt, yet still looking sexy in a feat only matched by Cindy Crawford in Fair Game. While she mixes it up in the action, her role really ends up being little more than the The Girl and anyone who can explain why she's wearing a ski cap on the beach at the end, please enlighten me. Thank you.

Remember that ironclad boat from the beginning that I started the synopsis with? Well, the filmmakers nearly forgot it too with all the other plot threads to weave together. It doesn't help that every crucial clue in their quest seems to be by plain dumb luck. Coincidences are one thing, but it gets to be like they have their own deus ex machina factory guiding their path. The commentary says that the book was this way, but on screen, it plays pat, hokey and way too convenient.

While the movie is a mixed-positive bag, the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is nearly flawless, with excellent color that captures the golden filtration that McGarvey developed to emphasize the illusion of heat for a film shot in desert winter and the digital intermediate color-timing used to selectively blow out the highlights. Black levels and shadow detail are good and there was no banding noted in the subtle gradients of the sand. The print is clean and only a few sporadic shots that betray some weak distance detail hold down the grade.

On the audio front (and back), the opening scenes feature so much positional excitement from the English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track (French 2.0 is also available - subtitles in English and Spanish) that I was looking forward to a more consistent presence of back channel content. However, that wasn't meant to be though the mix is nice and punchy, with good low-end activity that drives the action onscreen home. Levels and dynamics are well-balanced and the score and dialogue are where they should be.

The features booty isn't very broad, but it is nicely deep starting with Breck Eisner's solo commentary. Balancing nicely between film geek minutiae and tech-for-dummies simplicity, he's a good talker who actually made me want to hear what he had to say, even explaining why the soundtrack runs heavy on the moldy early-Seventies Southern rock. On the second commentary track, when he's joined by McConaughey, the good info bits are recycled and much of the rest of the track strays into, "Hey, you remember that day?" territory. Go with the solo track for the facts; crack a brew and maybe make some brownies (nudge wink) for the party track. Four deleted scenes (total time approx. 4-1/2 minutes) are included with optional tag-team commentary. None of them are really missed, though one bit does explain one of the myriad lucky breaks that save their bacon at one point.

Across the Sands of Sahara, Visualizing Sahara and the Cast and Crew Wrap Film add up to about 45 minutes of making-of material that manages to get a lot of the process and design decisions across in a fairly in-depth manner. It would've been nice to see more on the special effects techniques, but that's just the geek speaking. Finally, an Easter egg offering a 30-second tour of Steve Zahn's trailer is available by pressing the up arrow from the top of the Special Features screen. Personally, a 30-second tour of Cruz's lingerie drawer would've been more useful. (Can I get an Amen?)

It's too bad that the makers couldn't have picked a more appropriate cast for the film's tone or lightened the tone for the cast, because while the sweep is epic and the action well-handled, it fails to deliver us to Popcorn Nirvana. The wait for a new King continues. (Anyone else hear a rumor about an Indy IV script being done?)

Peter Schorn

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