Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”

Remember the conventional wisdom on "Pirates of the Caribbean"? It was a family-friendly action film based on a theme park attraction, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Gore Verbinski, and the trailers made it look hammy and brainless. How could it possibly have been any good? But it turned out to be a little smarter and a lot more fun than the conventional wisdom could have predicted, one of the surprise good entertainments of the year.

History has repeated itself with "Sahara," a miscast Clive Cussler adaptation directed by the son of Michael Eisner on his first large-scale production, which looks unyieldingly stupid in the trailers. Whoever directed the marketing for this film has chosen to highlight the dumbest moments and hard-pedal the preposterous Confederate-Ironclad-in-the-African-desert premise, making this look like a colossal stinker. But to my happy discovery, it isn't. All those same dumb moments are in the movie, diluted with two hours of skillfully directed action sequences and performed by actors who, if not right for the parts, at least approach them with high energy and dedication. Matthew McConaughey is an underappreciated workhorse of an actor, bringing unneeded intensity to roles like in "Reign of Fire" and "Frailty" that other actors in his place would merely phone in. His laid-back slacker persona couldn't be more wrong for the Type-A millionaire globetrotter Dirk Pitt, but other than a certain hamminess (unavoidable in this kind of film), he manages to carry the film anyway, with charm and energy. He's matched by the equally miscast and equally devoted Steve Zahn and Penélope Cruz; only the mild-mannered villain, the world's least scary genocidal warlord, is given a perfunctory performance.

Cussler has always preferred the fantastic to the plausible. In "Sahara," that approach sometimes inspires delight, as when the heroes resourcefully escape the desert in half of a wrecked plane, and sometimes it inspires groans, as when Dirk Pitt spends a full minute dangling helplessly from a ledge unable to save himself but, as soon as the villain's back is turned, effortlessly climbs back up. It doesn't help that the characters explicitly point out the flaws in their own movie, like when the sidekick mentions (twice) that there's no way the hero's method of victory at the end should have worked, and when the villain says that "nobody cares about Africa," as if acknowledging that the setting is likely to bore most of the film's target audience. Also making the film difficult to enjoy is the schizophrenic musical selection, blaring classic rock songs at the most inopportune moments, as when "Sweet Home Alabama" plays while the characters are cruising through an impoverished, plague-stricken African village.

It's a credit to the film's charm that it manages to be highly entertaining despite these recurring annoyances. And speaking for myself, I can't help but appreciate it when a mainstream film goes to the trouble of including scenes of no consequence: When Dirk Pitt bought his female companion a pair of exotic seashells and explained how science had yet to determine why they glowed in the dark, I rolled my eyes because I knew that in some later scene they would use the shells to see in the dark and/or discover how the shells worked; but no, the scene has no relation to anything else in the movie, and exists only so we can enjoy the appeal of actors McConaughey and Cruz flirting with each other. "Sahara" might be built out of every stock adventure-movie cliché in the book, and its far-fetched plot details are often introduced less than gracefully, but it's still a lot of fun, not half as brainless as it seems, and unexpectedly gratifying. It's the last movie I would have expected to recommend, but here I am doing it.

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