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‘Sahara’ plays like a travelogue

Location more important than character in this action adventure. By John Hartl

Location, location, location. That’s what matters most in Breck Eisner’s “Sahara,” an Indiana Jones wannabe that makes its strongest impression as an African travelogue.

Most scenes are set in Mali or Nigeria, though they were filmed in off-the-beaten-path areas of Spain and Morocco. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (“The Hours”) and production designer Allan Cameron (“The Mummy”) make the most of the desert landscapes, sprawling rivers and decaying legionnaire’s forts they’ve found.

Parts of the movie generate the same wide-screen visual splendor as “Lawrence of Arabia” and other desert epics; in the final reels a massive solar-energy factory sprouts like a glittering spaceship out of the dunes. It’s no surprise to find that the editor (Andrew MacRitchie) and visual effects supervisor (Mara Bryan) worked on the most recent James Bond movies.

As for the names you’re more likely to find on a marquee, Matthew McConaughey plays Dirk Pitt, a buff explorer and senator’s son who is looking for treasure and a long-lost Civil War battleship — in West Africa, of all places. Steve Zahn plays his wisecracking sidekick, Al Giordino, and Penelope Cruz is Dr. Eva Rojas, a solemn representative of the World Health Organization.

When Dirk rescues her from an assassination attempt, she tells him about her attempts to discover the origins of a deadly disease that appears to be decimating the continent. As it turns out, their treasure hunt is tied to the source of the disease. It’s not the first hard-to-buy coincidence in a plot that’s jammed with preposterous twists and cliffhangers.

Based on a Clive Cussler novel, the movie is identified as a “Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt adventure,” in hopes, apparently, that it will become a franchise. This kind of thinking seems awfully wishful, especially when you consider that it took four writers to come up the tepid screenplay. You can almost hear them straining to produce a decent one-liner or a running gag or a bit of schtick for the actors to toss off.

Zahn does get to fumble coyly with his tie and complain about the results of a U-turn in a river (“I lost my hat,” he says more than once), but it all seems pretty desperate. The script finds almost nothing for Bill Macy or Lambert Wilson to do, and it utterly wastes the wonderfully eccentric Rainn Wilson, who plays the geeky mortician intern, Arthur Martin, on HBO’s “Six Feet Under.”

The black characters are either expendable (they die so willingly) or gullible (the security guards see nothing) or one-dimensionally vicious (the general who shoots anyone who might even be thinking of standing in his way). And the lack of chemistry among the three leads makes you nostalgic for the way Nicolas Cage, Justin Bartha and Diane Kruger handled a similar triangle in “National Treasure.” Yes, silly old “National Treasure.”

Eisner does, however, know how to put together an action sequence. A first-time director for the big screen, he cut his teeth on Steven Spielberg’s television series, “Taken,” and he delivers three stunt-filled episodes here that work like the Saturday-matinee nail-biters they’re meant to be.