Film Reviews (2005)  

SaharaSometimes you feel a physical need to go to the movies. Beckoning memories of the soft seats, the flickering darkness, and the smell of popcorn catch you in a weak moment and off you go, heedless of the title on the marquee so long as the picture runs for two hours and there are no infants in the audience. At such times, a small, art-house film cannot provide the proper thrill. The mega-budget Hollywood blockbuster is needed.

Such was my mood the other night. Out in search of a fix I happened across a lucky combination. “Sahara”, which was positively reviewed by Roger Ebert, was playing at the Ziegfeld, which is my single favorite theater in Manhattan. I knew it would be terrible, but when you’re a movie lover caught in the straitened release window of early Spring, you don’t ask questions. My wish was that “Sahara” would play out like the over-the-top, CGI-heavy, fun-fests that have lately been the specialty of Stephen Somers (“The Mummy”, “Van Helsing”).

I didn’t even get that much. “Sahara” is not only the dumbest movie of the year, it ranks with some of the worst of any year. The anti-Sofia Coppola, Breck (Breck!) Eisner rode a strong breeze of nepotism and somehow tumbled into the director’s chair, from which he should have been kicked as quickly as possible. Actually, there was so much off-kilter editing I would be surprised to find out that Eisner finished the movie at all. The story is cut to pieces, hanging together like toothpicks in a hurricane.

The characters suffer grievously. Steve Zahn, for example, appears to have had every one of his punchlines hastily removed from the final cut. None of the cuts made it less boring. It’s too worked-over to allow for honest lapses in judgment, one of those hairballs that’s coughed out of studio editing rooms from time to time, the kind with three teams of (credited) writers who have left glaring seams in the screenplay. This is the “Project Greenlight” episode everyone really wants to see: Michael Eisner’s son losing control of the movie and earning an on-set thrashing by everyone from the line producer to the caterer.

An international sort of adventure, “Sahara” reminded me instantly of the old “Mr. Show” sketch in which Bob and David play two American frat boys in Holland. They visit The Anne Frank House to find a hidden hackeysack as part of one of those quest-based MTV reality shows. Horsing around with loutish vulgarity, they keep pausing with mock seriousness to remind themselves to be respectful. Their sense of the place’s deep, solemn history seems perfunctory, an obligation forced on their puny PlayStation brains the way shoes were forced on poor Huck Finn’s feet.

In the same way, two ex-Navy Seal Southern yahoos, one named Dirk Pitt, the other named—well, look, his name doesn’t matter because in this type of movie you’re either named Dirk Pitt or you’re cannon fodder—roam Africa looking for treasure and germs. Somehow we’re to believe they’re brilliant explorers and scholars, sensitive ambassadors to the native Africans and your average knife-wielding, beer-chugging, shit-kicking American dudes (“A case of tequila we find that buried Civil War ironside!” “You’re on!”).

So we watch Pitt respectfully pump a Muslim cleric for information, tossing in a few words in Arabic for good measure, and then, faster than you can burp “‘Murca”, we’re rushing down the Niger in a speedboat with Lynrd Skynrd blaring from the soundtrack. Or Pitt will give a viva on a clam shell or an old Civil War coin and then flex his pecs, high-five his buddy, and blow up a boat. Supposedly a “fun action adventure” starring Americans out in the world, this film wears the stilted smile of a Klansman throwing out the first pitch on Jackie Robinson Day.

The movie deserves some credit: you will never see a dumber murderer in action. At one point a Mali warlord confronts a U.N./W.H.O. scientist working with the local villagers. Now, this would be a murder outsiders would care about. Cover-up required! So the warlord sits in a chair and carefully explains to the scientist that he is about to shoot him with a rare nineteenth-century pistol, only a handful of which were ever made, and even tells him about the special ammunition he had made for the gun by a London smithy. I’m no ballistics expert, but a fresh corpse found riddled with three specially-made 27-pound silver bullets fired from an antique pistol, of which there are only a few in the world? Even over-zealous L.A.P.D. detectives wouldn’t bumble that one.