It may be hard to tell from the ads, but Sahara, Matthew McConaughey’s latest bid to become the next Harrison Ford, marks the emergence of an exciting new genre for Hollywood: the genocide action-adventure. That’s right, for those of you who’ve been hoping that the industry would finally get around to merging the hot-button social drama of Hotel Rwanda with the sub-idiotic thrills of National Treasure, the wait is over.

Director Breck Eisner’s debut feature is set across numerous continents, centuries and suspensions of disbelief. McConaughey stars as Dirk Pitt, a devil-may-care adventurer who, with the help of his goofball sidekick Al (Steve Zahn), is determined to unearth a Civil War treasure that’s somehow buried deep in desert. The would-be dashing Pitt begs, borrows or steals any mode of transportation that’ll get him to his destination, including boats, planes and trains but most often a fleet of product-placement Jeeps. Only one woman can stop him in his tracks: the saucer-eyed, chipmunk-voiced beauty Eva (Penelope Cruz), a dedicated World Health Organization doctor who’s researching a mysterious virus that makes people look like they dug into Marilyn Manson’s makeup kit. Some of Eva’s altruism rubs off on the opportunistic Pitt, and they join forces to save the world — and dig up untold riches while they’re at it.

Or something. If this sounds like the plot to one of those crummy paperbacks you find in airport gift shops, that’s because it is. Sahara is Paramount’s attempt to turn author Clive Cussler’s long-running Dirk Pitt adventures into a Mummy-style franchise. And who better to launch a franchise than Eisner, the son of one of the most powerful men in show business, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner? At its best, the Eisner-spawn’s first big-screen attempt is mild and square, with some decent scenery. At its worst, the film is borderline racist, portraying a bunch of colorful Westerners and Europeans against a backdrop of hordes of nameless, threatening and/or disease-ridden African extras.

Eisner hasn’t yet succumbed to the machine-gun editing style favored by the Bard of Bombast, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, but just give him time. If Bruckheimer’s National Treasure was a bunch of dumb action scenes in search of a plot, this film is just the opposite: too much story in search of a few good action scenes. McConaughey’s rippling, slo-mo abs are usually featured more prominently than his face, and Cruz spends most of the film being the modern-day equivalent of a lady tied to the railroad tracks. Real actors like Zahn and William H. Macy attempt to add some levity to the proceedings, but are constantly thwarted by the grim subtext. It’s possible that someone in Hollywood could make a rollicking adventure about genocidal Third World warlords and their evil corporate benefactors, but for the sake of international relations, let’s hope they don’t.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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