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I Bet You Didn’t See… Sahara

Updated: Jan 13

Contains Spoilers!!!

This is one of my all-time favourite films and I was introduced to it by my partner, whose family bought it but none of them remember why. I’m so glad they did though!

The film is based on the eleventh book in a series by Clive Cussler that followers the adventures of a former American pilot (or marine as he is in the film) called Dirk Pitt. In the film, Matthew McConaughey plays Pitt, who works for NUMA, a private company that recuse “history from the tides of time” (quoted from Admiral Sandecker in the film).

The opening of the film shows a Confederate Ironclad ship pushing through a Union blockade during the American Civil War with a large number of crates. The ship breaks through while under attack and the film goes into the opening title sequence.

We are then introduced to Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), a W.H.O. doctor who is investigating an outbreak of a disease in Nigeria that has stemmed from Mali. She is then attacked on a beach in Nigeria. Dirk, in a dingy just off the shore, sees and saves her. After passing out she finds herself on the NUMA ship, where we are introduced to the main characters. Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) shouts in Eva’s face accidentally before awkwardly apologising and carrying on working, bringing Firk up from the depths with a sarcophagus. Rudi Gunn (Rainn Wilson) introduces Eva to the ship, and she is formally introduced to Pitt. We are also introduced to Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy), the head of NUMA. This scene also starts to show us the wonderful ‘bro-mance’ between Dirk and Al that shines through this film.

McConaughey, Cruz and Zahn

Dirk is obsessed with a legend about a Confederate Ironclad that sailed across the Atlantic and was seen off the coast of Africa (see Paragraph 2) and after a phone call from a dubious contact claiming evidence was found in Mali, Dirk presents Sandecker with a Confederate gold dollar supposedly lost when the captain of the rumoured ship in question (called the Texas) vanished. Sandecker gives Dirk three days to investigate and use of his personal yacht. Meanwhile, Eva and her colleague Frank have asked a French businessman Massarde (Lambert Wilson), who has contacts with Mali’s warlord leader Kazim (Lennie James), to get them into Mali to help but aren’t convinced he is going to help.

After being slightly blackmailed into taking Eva and Frank into Mali by Eva, Dirk, Al and Rudi sail up the Niger river into Mali in relative peace. We learn that Dirk and Al have spent their lives together and are the best of friends. From kindergarten to school, college to the Marines and then NUMA. When Eva and Frank have split off to investigate the source of the disease outbreak, the three guys are approached by two military river boats, interrupting a game of ‘I Spy’.

"I shot a guy with a flare gun"

The military are looking for Eva and Frank, but in the aggressive encounter, Dirk, Al and Rudi work out that this is not a friendly visit. This leads into an amazing river chase scene. Conveniently, Sandecker calls the on the satellite phone as the scene starts. A classic chase scene, with Rudi shooting people with a flare gun and Al losing his lucky hat, the guy’s military training shines through, and the chemistry between McConaughey and Zahn is at its best. Two best friends working together seamlessly. Amongst gunshots and shattering carbon fibre and glass, the yacht’s engine is hit. Now, Al and Dirk are in a pickle. They decide to pull a ‘Panama’. Madly running about the cabin trying to set up the move, Rudi gets confused.

Rudi: "I didn't know you were in Panama."
Al: "We weren't. We were in Nicaragua."
Rudi: "Then why is it called a Panama?"
Al: "We thought we were in Panama!"

The guys succeed and make their way out of the river into Mali. Rudi is sent off to return to Sandecker and get the word out about discoveries he has made during their journey while Dirk and Al head off to rescue Eva and Frank.

The guys manage to rescue Eva (another gunfight, showing Al’s loyalty to his friend), but they get caught up in the Malian Civil War with the Tuareg picking them up. We learn more about the war, the disease, and the country. While among the Tuareg, Dirk and Al find a link between where they are and the Ironclad ship they are looking for, in a cave painting. They follow this lead to find out Massarde has a chemical plant in the desert. Infiltrating it, the three are caught and Dirk and Al are shipped out to the Malian leader Kazim.

Another daring escape leads to the film’s climactic finale where an attempt to rescue Eva is made and a chase scene and battle seeing Eva, Dirk and Al taking on Kazim and his army.

Yes, this is really a still from the film!

What makes this film so great is the on-screen chemistry between McConaughey and Zahn. They bounce off each other as if they have worked together forever, which their characters have, and their banter is fantastic. They are both childish and genius, cheeky and sincere all in equal measure. It has to be one of the best, if not the best, on-screen pairing I’ve ever seen. The other thing you need to look out for is the opening title sequence. Without giving too much away, I implore you to watch it before and after you’ve watched the film.

“We’re in the middle of a desert, looking for the source of a river pollutant, using as our map a cave drawing of a civil war gunship… which is also in the desert. So I was just wondering when we’re gonna have to sit down and re-evaluate our decision making paradigm.” – Al Giordino

Directed by: Breck Eisner

Screenplay by: James V. Hart, Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, John C. Richards

Based on: “Sahara” by Clive Cussler

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz

Released: April 4th, 2005

My Rating: 9/10

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