It's possible to admire director Breck Eisner for the same reason it's possible to doubt his skills without seeing a frame of Sahara, his theatrical-feature debut. As the son of Disney boss Michael Eisner, Breck Eisner must know he has to do a knockout job, or everyone will accuse him of basing his career on his family name. And he hasn't taken the easy way out with Sahara. No tender coming-of-age story or modestly budgeted comedy, it's a full-scale spectacle in the summer-blockbuster mold, filled with explosions and high adventure, shot in unforgiving desert locations, and taken from an entry in a series written by airport favorite Clive Cussler. So, bravo, Breck Eisner, for dreaming big dreams. But the clunky Sahara isn't going to let anyone forget your last name.
Part '50s matinee adventure, part '80s Raiders Of The Lost Ark knockoff, part something that aired on HBO2 at 4 a.m. last Friday, Sahara sets the often-shirtless Matthew McConaughey off in pursuit of a lost Confederate ironclad ship rumored to be buried somewhere in the Sahara Desert. (The film explains this, kind of.) In tow: Scrappy sidekick Steve Zahn and World Health Organization official Penélope Cruz, apparently playing a woman so concerned with the troubles of the Third World that she's unable to convey any kind of emotion beyond vague annoyance. Borrowing a boat from cigar-chomping boss William H. Macy, they head up-river, encountering hostile militants working for a, gasp, French industrialist polluting the land with his solar-energy plant. (Solar energy: Will humanity never learn?)
Naturally, this necessitates confrontations, shootouts, and chases, all executed at maximum volume and with minimal impact. Eisner deserves credit for not casting his lot in with the Jerry Bruckheimer-inspired school of smash-cut action incoherence, but he doesn't quite have a handle on the more traditional approach he attempts. When the horn stings of Clint Mansell's score echo John Barry's James Bond work, it only underlines just how short of the mark Eisner falls.
Then again, it's not like he's working with Sean Connery, either. McConaughey is usually a welcome presence, but here, he looks like making the movie was getting in the way of his exciting African adventure—he lazily drawls his way through exposition scenes and flirtations with Cruz as if they were interchangeable. Playing the goofball stoner-type to McConaughey's heroic stoner-type, Zahn doesn't so much provide balance as raise questions like "Who licensed these guys to work with heavy equipment?" It's not like the plot provides much of a distraction from such issues. Nor do the action scenes. Or any other aspect of the film, for that matter.