Friday, February 26, 2010

As Breck Eisner returns with The Crazies, a moment to remember Sahara.

I have not seen The Crazies, and I probably will wait for DVD since it's just the sort of thing my wife would enjoy. In fact, Blockbuster should be sending me a Blu Ray copy of the 1973 George Romero original this very day. But I'm not here to discuss a remake that I haven't seen or the original which I will probably watch this evening, but rather to once again give props to Eisner's prior film, one that I feel is arguably one of the most underrated films of the just-finished decade: Sahara.

The 2005 Clive Cussler adaptation is often considered one of the biggest financial disasters in the last several years. While the film grossed a decent $122 million worldwide, it cost around $130 million to produce and around $80 million to market. Why the producers thought it was a good idea to spend $130 million on a Matthew McConaughy vehicle is beyond me (his highest grossing worldwide hit is How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, at just $177 million), but I digress. The picture was further embroiled when author Clive Cussler sued producer Philip Anschutz and several other involved parties for not giving him script control, casting approval, and various other grievances (Cussler lost each of these lawsuits). But hidden beyond the litigation and the sky-high budget is the fact that Sahara is actually a pretty terrific adventure movie.

In a time when we complain about an over-reliance on computer-generated effects and digital stuntmen, Sahara is the real thing. It has real vehicle chases, practical stunt work, and real desert locations. When characters fight and tumble, we see real sweat, blood, and sand. The action feels real and as a result it's genuinely exciting. The set pieces are both engaging and funny (a first-act boat chase) and inventive and suspenseful (a fight set on a giant rotating solar-paneled roof). Most importantly, the film remembers to actually be a movie. There is an actual story involving an epidemic that starts in North Africa which intertwines with a quest for a lost Civil War battleship. While the film doesn't take the events incredibly seriously, it remembers that the characters do. When a major character is killed in the first act, he is mourned for a substantial period of screen-time. The characters acknowledge the devastation that grips North Africa without navel-gazing or flippant exploitation. While the events are preposterous, the actors remember to play it for real whenever possible.

And the characters are genuinely winning. Sure, some of them are 'types', but everyone is by turns entertaining, charming, ruthless, and/or amusing, whatever the situation calls for. In short, you have three fun heroes (McConaughy, Penelope Cruz, and Steve Zahn) who sell the gee-wiz sex appeal without being obnoxious, two ruthless, thoughtful, and occasionally charming villains (Lennie James and Lambert Wilson), and two seen-it-all higher-ups played with relish by beloved character actors (William H. Macy and Delroy Lindo). The plot that makes a token amount of sense and has just enough real-world politics (what seemingly only affects North Africa eventually threatens lives elsewhere) to merit your attention. All that, plus exciting action scenes that are staged the old-fashioned way. Sahara is the very definition of the kind of movie they just don't make anymore (see also - Hidalgo and The Rundown). And, alas, because it cost $130 million, we shouldn't expect to see another of its kind for awhile.

Scott Mendelson


Kyle Leaman said...

Whilst I disagree (but you sure make me want to reconsider), I would add that 'Sahara' does have one of the better opening shots of the last decade!

Unknown said...

Sahara is wildly underrated.


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