National Treasure was Indiana Jones after reading The Da Vinci Code. Hidalgo was Indiana Jones with some horses. Van Helsing was Indiana Jones for Marilyn Manson fans... With Indy 4 shuffling further down Spielberg's in-tray, Hollywood is still casting around for that all-new action-adventure franchise: family-friendly, wholesome but edgy hero, boys' own quest, dash of romance...
Sahara, then. If the new plan is to dim down the star dazzle and focus on the action, then it's worked. Matthew McConaughey has coasted for too long now, and, perma-tanned and pearlytoothed, he wholeheartedly dives in to Dirk Pitt, swiping Indy's raffish swagger but also factoring in bits of Bond, Brucie and even, briefly, Life Aquatic's Steve Zissou. Whether the character is universal enough to sustain a series remains to be seen, but McConaughey's work is certainly done.
Still, while Indy squared up to cackling Nazis and sacrificial cults, the big beef here is environmental disaster and, um, disease containment. Although director Breck Eisner drops in the odd burst of cheeky Bush-bashing, the theme is as dry as the dusty desert landscapes. This flatness extends to the bad guys as well. One's a weedy bureaucrat apparently based on Jonathan Pryce's Worst Bond Villain Ever from Tomorrow Never Dies; the other a corrupt African general who "puts the `war' back in `warlord'."
The film's secret weapon is Steve Zahn, whose sarky shamble and cheery catchphrase (""Hey! How are ya?"") conceals a well-hard, gun-proficient badass. He's Stoner Rambo, gleefully hamming up the film's essential daftness by sustaininga likable tongue-in-cheek vibe. By contrast, Penélope Cruz is exotic but toothless, and, given the fizzing Zahn-McConaughey chemistry, Sahara would have flowed more naturally as a straight buddy partnership.
When all the blether about toxic dumping and viral extrapolation gets a little bit too taxing, Eisner is smart enough to always have an absolutely clanging set-piece up his sleeve. We get a high-speed river-boat chase, a helipad punch-up, desert windsurfing on the wing of a plane wreck and a barnstorming instant classic featuring an attack helicopter and an old cannon (Zahn: ""I can't believe that worked!"").
And that's where Sahara most successfully mines the key Indy ingredient: keep 'em amused and entertained in short, breathless bursts and they'll tolerate the grown-up bits. Pitt creator Clive Cussler banged out 14 novels of this stuff, which would be a bit of a push. But, unlike the other Dr Jones wannabes, you'll leave Sahara with a thirst for at least one or two more McConaughey/Zahn match-ups.
Far from perfect and more of a pre-blockbuster season oasis than the expected Indy wannabe mirage, but McConaughey and Zahn sparkle.