16 APRIL 2005, Page 43

Chemistry desert

Mark Steyn

Sahara 12A, selected cinemas

Until James Bond came along in the Sixties, the most successful movie series to date had been the Road pictures with Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. Sahara seems to be an ill-advised attempt to merge the two into one almighty eternal franchise. It eventually winds up with our hero and the gal running around the villain’s remote high-tech lair trying to figure out how to switch the ticking thing off before it blows sky-high. But before that there’s a lot of scenes in the desert with two buddies riding around on camels bantering. The guys are bantering, that is, not the camels, though the alleged sparkling repartee wouldn’t have been any less sparkling if they’d given it to the dromedaries. Penelope Cruz takes the Dorothy Lamour role, and Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn are Bing and Bob, and that’s where it all starts to go awry.

The three principals have zero chemistry together, which is surprising because McConaughey and Cruz have since got engaged, which came as news to me because I thought she was still dating her diminutive homophone, Tom Cruise. I happened to see the movie after watching an old archive clip of Sinatra on TV singing ‘It’s All Right With Me’ into Juliet Prowse’s ear and, sexual chemistry-wise, their Bunsen burner was ready to blow: my TV was smoking by the middle eight. By contrast, look at McConaughey and Cruz together: their eyes are dead. How come director Breck Eisner (son of Disney boss Michael Eisner) couldn’t see that in the rushes? There’s no there there.

On the other hand, McConaughey has great chemistry with himself. When first we sight him, he’s pulling his magnificently honed physique out of the water and on to his boat in a shot precisely angled to show off his magnificently broad chest. On closer inspection, this turns out to be his magnificently broad upper arm. The camera has to pull back another hundred yards to get the magnificently broad chest and the other upper arm in, and he obligingly holds himself still for a moment. I think the effect is meant to be like Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’, if the artist had come back from lunch drunk and got the proportions all wrong, but it’s strangely reminiscent of that beefcake who used to bang the gong at the start of the old Rank movies. If he’d just banged a gong and gone off, who could complain? Instead, he sticks around. McConaughey is playing ‘Dirk Pitt’, which sounds like a nom-de-porn but is actually the hero of a gazillion ripping yarns by Clive Cussler, the latest of which features not just Dirk Pitt but Dirk Pitt Jr, and is co-written by Clive Cussler’s own son, Dirk Cussler. Pitt is an ex-SEAL and adventurer and in Sahara he’s obsessed with finding a Confederate ironclad from the US Civil War that sailed a little off course and ran aground in what’s now Mali. Hey, please, no jeering: I’m just the guy who types the synopsis.

That would be enough for most movies. But we also have Penelope Cruz as Dr Eva Something-Or-Other — Eva Sigh, Eva Bosom — who’s with the World Health Organisation in Nigeria and wears spectacles, at least for the first few scenes to establish the seriousness of her character. She thinks she’s stumbled on the victims of a plague that’s working its way down the Niger River from Mali. Instead, it’s a murky racket involving a thuggish African dictator and a devious Frenchman, both straight out of central casting, but, that aside, the devastation they’re about to wreak is rather nifty and not unconvincing. Unfortunately, these two plots — the trea sure hunt and the medical mystery — run on parallel tracks and never really connect in any organic sense, with the result that neither of them really pays off.

Well, you say, so what? Bond movies have preposterous desultory plots and that hasn’t stopped them raking it in for 40 years. If the sum of the parts scores high enough, who cares about the whole? You can have fun along the way even if the journey’s utterly predictable. The trouble is there’s no fun along the way. You can write off the location for a start: the film has no interest in Africa, not even in the way the Bond guys slip in flip exchanges — ‘Hong Kong is Chinese now, 007.’ ‘Don’t worry, I’m not here to take it back’ — just perfunctory enough to make you feel the shoot-outs are part of the big geopolitical picture. None of that here. No interest in the non-American characters, either. And that wouldn’t matter if the principals were compelling. But the buddy-buddy stuff between McConaughey and Zahn has the form of wisecracks without ever cracking wise. They rattle off lines as things are exploding around them but the lines have the form of jokes without actually being funny.

It’s the same with McConaughey. It must be — what? eight, nine years since I saw him on the cover of Vanity Fair being announced as a major star. I forget what he was doing then. A movie with Sandra Bullock? Ashley Judd? A movie apiece with each? But it’s a very fine line between cool and yawnsville, and he falls well the other side. He’s got those blond tendrils and a cocky grin and other than that he’s a charisma-free zone. Put him in the Sahara and he’s the mirage: shimmering in the distance, but evaporating into nothing up close. Consciously or not, Eisner knows this. When the film’s not using sub-subsub-sub-John Barry Goldfinger riffs under its action sequences, it throws in ever more frantic testostorock schlock like a sportsbar disc-jockey trying to get the party going. He never does. To get a franchise going, you need your own style, and this movie hasn’t an original thought on anything.