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The UnPopular Opinion: Sahara

THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!

****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****

A decade before his Oscar and resurgence as a Hollywood leading man, Matthew McConaughey was something of a joke. Starring in a string of romantic comedies and forgettable tripe, the suave Southern accented thespian tried his hand at an action franchise inspired by a long running series of novels. Playing explorer Dirk Pitt, McConaughey looked poised to join the annals of the greatest action roles in movie history. But, SAHARA opened to a critical drubbing and a worldwide box office that didn't even come close to the film's budget. In the thirteen years since it was released, SAHARA has been virtually forgotten and barely even plays on the myriad of cable channels needing material to fill twenty-four hours of airtime. But, SAHARA is nowhere near the debacle you may think that it is. In fact, SAHARA is a very fun summertime romp.

SAHARA centers on adventurer/explorer/super buff dude Dirk Pitt. The protagonist of over a dozen novels by prolific author Clive Cussler, Pitt is your dad's favorite fictional character aside from Jack Ryan. Cussler's rip-roaring adventure novels harken back to the bygone era of serials and pulp fiction that popularized the names Tarzan, John Carter, and Flash Gordon. Here, Dirk Pitt is updated for the 21st Century, sort of. The technology hovers around mid-1990s James Bond gadgetry at it's best and at it's worst feels like it could have come straight out of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. But RAIDERS is exactly what SAHARA is aiming for. Breck Eisner's film liberally borrows from the Indiana Jones franchise down to a scene with a helicopter that feels more than reminiscent of the plane scene where Harrison Ford fights the big bald Nazi.

The UnPopular Opinion, Sahara, Action, Breck Eisner, Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, Rainn Wilson, William H Macy

SAHARA feels, in many ways, like a copy of Stephen Sommer's MUMMY films with Matthew McConaughey channeling Brendan Fraser's hero. But McConaughey was in full Don't Give a Fuck mode playing Dirk Pitt and was just having fun. The stakes in SAHARA never feel big or tangible enough to really invest in but that should not count as a mark against the movie. Eisner and McConaughey have instead constructed a very fun popcorn flick that is mindless but never dull. There is nothing that ever appears on screen during SAHARA that comes close to revolutionizing the genre, but it doesn't have to. SAHARA is designed to be fun from start to finish and it more than capably succeeds in doing so. There is a rip-roaring score courtesy of the great Clint Mansell and cinematography by Seamus McGarvey that makes excellent use of the location shoots to keep SAHARA from ever feeling like a backlot production.

And the cast, my lord the amazing cast. Aside from McConaughey and his love interest played by the always alluring Penelope Cruz, we have Steve Zahn. Now, I never thought I would type those words, but Zahn is pitch perfect casting as Al Giordino. In the novels, Giordino and Pitt have been friends since elementary school and the chemistry on screen between McConaughey and Zahn feeds on that connection beautifully. Of the great movie pairings of all time, these two would rank if only more people had seen this film. Even today, more than a decade since SAHARA, both Zahn and McConaughey could easily reprise their roles and continue the franchise that stalled. The rest of the cast is great with William H. Macy and Rainn Wilson portraying recurring characters from the novels as well as THE MATRIX RELOADED's Lambert Wilson and The Walking Dead's Lennie James as classic Bond-style villains.

While the trailers did not do the film any favors, SAHARA can best be compared to the action films of the mid-to-late 1990s. Obviously, there are expectations of a film aiming to fill the shoes of Indiana Jones or James Bond that SAHARA was never going to live up to, but this was also the first attempt at bringing Dirk Pitt to life. For a film budgeted at $160 million, you may have expected a bit more scale than what we get in the finished product. But what SAHARA lacks in massive set pieces it more than makes up for in heart. Matthew McConaughey just looks like he enjoyed every scene he was in without having to yet live up to the tag of Academy Award Winner he has attached to his name now. In fact, SAHARA has another Academy Award winner and a nominee in the cast which just lends to the feel of this being a production where everyone was having a good time and not concerned with anything more than that.

This movie has so much talent in the cast and working behind the scenes that it is amazing that it didn't result in at least one sequel. Maybe it was unfamiliarity with the source material or maybe it was the desert landscape that didn't click with summer movie audiences. Released in early April, there was not much competition for SAHARA. If this movie were released this year, I would venture that it would have performed a hell of a lot better. In hindsight, SAHARA was a passion project for McConaughey who traveled the United States in his own personal trailer and signed autographs and marketed the movie himself. It is amazing that it was not a bigger deal that he did that in 2005. But when you think about the actor McConaughey was then versus today, this movie should have performed so much better.

The UnPopular Opinion, Sahara, Action, Breck Eisner, Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, Rainn Wilson, William H Macy

SAHARA feels in so many ways the equivalent of an American James Bond. Sure, the BOURNE and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchises feel more like the modern American version of James Bond, but SAHARA is more like Roger Moore-era Bond. It is bright, fast, and doesn't always make a whole lot of sense. But that is also why it works so well. SAHARA is inoffensive in that it isn't bogged down by profanity, sex, or violence. It does have all three of those things but they are in moderation which lends the movie a family friendly vibe without losing the edge that a PG-13 action film should have. SAHARA is fun. It may be stupid fun, but it is still fun. As a proponent of enjoying a movie without having to hold it to any lofty standards or goals (because SAHARA itself was not meant to set records or win awards), you can have so much more fun with the finished product.

Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to [email protected], spell it out below, slap it up on my wall in Movie Fan Central, or send me a private message via Movie Fan Central. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you like, with any reasoning you'd care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!
Extra Tidbit: There was one previous attempt to adapt a Dirk Pitt novel. 1980's RAISE THE TITANIC! was a colossal failure and author Clive Cussler refused to allow another adaptation of his work until SAHARA. (Thanks to Robin B. for the reminder!)
Source: JoBlo.com

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