How many shots does Matthew McConaughey get? Hollywood keeps foisting him on us, we keep resisting, and yet here he is again, starring in Sahara, a big-budget action-adventure directed by Breck Eisner. McConaughey certainly looks like a leading man this time around, with his gleaming white teeth, his sun-baked muscles, his Errol Flynn mustache and eyes so blue they would have blinded Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. And he lets that Texas drawl of his smooth the edges off his square-jawed features. But when it comes time to charm our pants off, put all those natural resources to work, he doesn't quite get the job done. Our pants remain on.
He's Dirk Pitt, a carefree treasure hunter who's convinced there's a Civil War battleship buried in the sands of northern Africa. And if that reminds you of Indiana Jones, it should, although Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt novels, which have sold millions upon millions of copies, predate Raiders of the Lost Ark by a decade. What Indiana Jones had that McConaughey's Pitt doesn't have, alas, is a character quirk. Jones was cranky, but McConaughey never does stop smiling, even when a Mali warlord is coming after him with a machine gun. Savoir faire isn't such a bad characteristic in a treasure hunter, but you keep wishing that, just once, Pitt wouldn't know what to do.
Luckily, Steve Zahn's along for the ride as Pitt's comic sidekick, Al Giordino. Our first look at Zahn is from the rear, with enough cleavage to put your average plumber to shame, and thank God Zahn's willing to make himself the butt of the joke, because the movie would be deadly without him. Eisner, directing his first feature film, can't seem to decide whether he's making The Mummy or Hotel Rwanda. The scenes where Africans are shown succumbing to an Ebola-like virus, for instance, seem a little crass given the continent's current health crisis. And do we really want to use Africa as the romantic backdrop for another camel ride on The Road to Morocco?
In the Dorothy Lamour role, we have Penelope Cruz ' our loss. She's supposed to be Eva Rojas, a doctor with the World Health Organization, and her portrayal consists of wearing glasses and pinning her hair back in a bun. There's almost no chemistry between Cruz and McConaughey, despite reports of an on-set dalliance, but you can't expect chemistry without chemical formulas, and there's very little in the script that might lead to spontaneous combustion. Then again, when has McConaughey ever ignited on screen? The Wedding Planner? How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days? He's got everything it takes to be a huge star except...whatever it takes to be a huge star.