Explorer Dirk Pitt (McConaughey) is obsessed with finding a mysterious US Civil War ship, which he believes wound up somewhere in Africa. Upon finding a rare gold coin in Lagos, he knows he's close; but how does it tie in with a "plague" epidemic threatening thousands of North Africans?
Sand. gets everywhere, doesn't it? In your hair, in your sarnie, down your pants... Not to mention all those Hollywood action-adventure scripts. From Lawrence Of Arabia to The Scorpion King via Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the golden, gritty stuff has proven an ideal milieu for brash, tanned heroic-types with treasure to hunt, girls to save and stuff to blow up.
It was only a matter of time, then, before the stupidly named Dirk Pitt, hero of several pulpy novels by Clive Cussler, was given a cinematic excuse to romp around the dunes of West Africa. After all, what better use for the Third World's arid regions is there than as a playground for rugged Americans with little more in mind than salvage and carnage?
Places where corrupt military dictators (in this case, the barely convincing Lennie James) need to be foiled; where camel-thrashing tribal rebels need to be patronised; where feisty maidens (Penelope Cruz, just about keeping up) need romancing; and where the clueless natives need saving.
In case you hadn't guessed, Sahara ain't about to redefine the dune-adventure sub-genre. In fact, it's a bit rubbish, really. Breck Eisner (did Cussler give him his name, too?) directs with effective economy but little flair, the action sequences are been-there-exploded-that, while the plot is downright preposterous. But - and this is a big, hefty, ass-kicking but - it's all such tongue-vaguely-in-cheek fun you don't particularly care.
At the eye of this silly, swirling desert storm is the winning buddy act of McConaughey's Dirk and Steve Zahn's Al Giordino. Buff, browned, with a blinding ivory grin and twinkly baby-greens, McConaughey fills out Pitt's grubby khakis perfectly. Here's a guy you believe can have a solution to every life-threatening problem, who matches brawn with brains and who rarely breaks a sweat, even when the bullets are flying.
Zhan, meanwhile, is superb as the sidekick, forever exasperated by Pitt's impulsiveness, always ready to help him execute his get-out plans. As asinine as it all is, the two make sure every splutter is matched by a smile, every sneer by a cheer. At one crucial point, Al says to Dirk: "I'll find the bomb, you get the girl." And that pretty much sums up Sahara.
About as good as a big, stupid American action movie can be without ever being anything better than a big, stupid American action movie. Like The Mummy, then, but with far less CG.