A useless, putrid romp in the 'Sahara'


Published: Thursday, September 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 1, 2005 at 12:00 a.m.
There are good movies, there are bad movies and there are average movies. There are big Hollywood movies, independent films and B-movies. There are movies that touch your heart, stir your spirit and challenge your brain.
But every once in a while a special motion picture comes along.
This is the kind of movie that feels like a 16-ton anvil of badness has been dropped on your head. The kind of movie that boldly proclaims, "Yes, we know it stinks, too, but we've already got your money, so ha-ha!" This kind of movie only comes along three or four times a year, tops.
This season, that movie is "Sahara," a movie now on DVD and so spectacularly, massively, over-the-top terrible that I get the impression it was intentional. Perhaps the director wants to follow in the footsteps of Ed Wood. Perhaps two rich white men made a bet about who could make the worst film. Perhaps a power-crazed studio head gave his son $100 million to go play in the sand with Matthew McConaughey and pass off the results as a movie.
Sadly, we will never know. But what I do know is that "Sahara" stinks on ice. And if something stinks on ice, how does it fare in the middle of a desert? It bloats, rots and putrefies before being picked at by bugs. A more fitting description of "Sahara" could not be written by mortal man.
Down to the nuts and bolts. McConaughey is Dirk Pitt, a world-famous diver who is never seen actually underwater. He, his comic relief buddy Steve Zahn and eye-candy love interest Penelope Cruz get embroiled with a mystery involving - get ready for this - an iron-clad Civil War battleship that sailed over to Africa and got stuck in the middle of the Sahara desert.
Our heroes race against an evil African warlord and a slimy arms dealer to find the battleship and the source to a deadly mystery illness. Along the way, they have speedboat chases, camel/train chases and armed encounters with the Sand People who almost killed Luke in "Star Wars." Not only do they end up finding the battleship, but they rescue a bunch of tribal slaves and save the entire world from the nasty virus.
Everything is set to the same jamming classic rock that is standard-issue with movies these days. Listen, I like "Magic Carpet Ride" as much as the next guy, but if I have to hear it in one more movie, TV show or commercial I'm going to throw away my Steppenwolf jean jacket. For good this time.
The main problem with "Sahara" is that it wants to capture the spirit of the Indiana Jones movies. And as you probably know, the Jones movies were inspired by the old serials of the '40s, which were pretty corny. It works in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (and slightly less in "Temple of Doom") as a self-aware B-movie that can mix ridiculous action scenes and campy one-liners at will.
"Sahara" is a corny copy of a corny copy, and it only works on the level of comedy. Most of the laughs aren't intentional, but life is rough and sometimes you've got to take your laughs where you can get them.
Of course, "Sahara" isn't the first movie to try to rip off the swashbuckling style of the Jones pictures. And, believe it or not, it isn't the worst of the lot, either.
In 1985, an attempt was made to remake the 1950 film "King Solomon's Mines," which followed the treasure-hunting exploits of English explorer and elephant hunter Allan Quartermaine. Richard Chamberlain is given the thankless task of trying to be funny and charming in the middle of a mess of a story; Quartermaine is leading a safari to find another explorer, who has gone missing after finding the titular diamond mines.
What really sets this film apart from other bad movies, however, is a very palpable sense of prejudice. No N-words are used, but the portrayal of the African tribesmen as savage and stupid definitely made me uncomfortable. "King Solomon's Mines" is a movie made by, for and about imperialist British swine.
And then in 1986 came "Firewalker," in which bearded man-ape Chuck Norris played the hero. Backed by Louis Gossett Jr., Norris heads into the jungle to find a priceless fortune of lost gold. Of course there is a villain with a huge supply of thugs and minions also in quest of the gold. And, wouldn't you just know it, some native tribesmen also end up in the mix.
Will Walker, Texas Ranger, get cooked up like soup in a big black pot (which all tribes of non-white natives seem to possess, somehow)? More importantly, will the bad guy ever remember which eye is missing? I'm not kidding here; the villain's eye patch switches sides from scene to scene, very reminiscent of the hunchback in "Young Frankenstein" except sadly, pathetically, it's not done as a joke this time.
And then there is "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," a movie that does its level best to make you forget why we ever thought Indy was cool in the first place. With a lackluster script full of bad jokes and even worse action scenes, "Last Crusade" is the "Return of the Jedi" of the Jones series.
Not all the cheesy Indiana Jones clones are that bad, thankfully. Lest we forget, "Romancing the Stone" took a Jones-type jungle adventurer and put him in a romantic comedy, with tremendous success.
And I would be remiss if I didn't mention a personal favorite, "Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death." This film is a B-movie in which Jones is replaced by a female anthropologist who goes in search of a tribe of nekkid jungle women.
Inventive filmmaking? Hardly. But it does work from a time-tested blueprint for cheap movies: If you can't make a good movie, the least you can do is offer a lot of nudity.
Unfortunately, this is a lesson "Sahara" never learned.
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Sahara E (One E) King Solomon's Mines (one half E) Firewalker (one half E) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade E1/2 (one and one half Es)

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