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Early Summer Blockbuster a Thrilling Joyride

Long is the list of big-budget action movies that wage an all-out assault on the eyes and ears without challenging the mind. Then there's Sahara, a rollicking, over-the-top joyride that tells an engaging story -- a ridiculous, unbelievable story to be sure, but that's almost beside the point. Driven by a talent-rich cast, gorgeous cinematography and a colorful imagination, it's the ultimate popcorn movie, an extraordinary tale that careens at breakneck speed from one incredible adventure to another, daring you to keep up.

The premise is engrossing and pleasantly absurd. Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) is a dashing explorer who's spent his life obsessively searching for a long-lost Civil War battleship rumored to be buried 20,000 leagues under the sea with a cargo of spooky corpses and mysterious treasures. When a gold coin minted by the Confederate army turns up in West Africa, Dirk enlists his affable sidekick Al (Steve Zahn) to help investigate. Soon, they are joined by Dirk's eventual flame, Eva (Penelope Cruz), a doctor tracking a deadly virus into the dunes of war-torn Mali.

Of course, life isn't easy for three meddlesome tourists in a land governed by corrupt warlords and it's not long before Dirk and company find themselves in the bad graces of the bloodthirsty General Kazim (Lennie Jones). Kazim has a plan to eliminate his rival warlords by unleashing a chemically engineered plague, and doesn't seem to mind that it threatens to wipe out roughly two-thirds of the world's population. Naturally, it's up to our heroes to save the day -- even if that means surviving a near-constant series of pitfalls, ambushes and traps.

Credit director Breck Eisner for making the difficult choices central to the movie's success. It couldn't have been easy to organize Clive Cussler's labyrinthine fantasy into an uncluttered feature-length film, but Sahara holds together nicely, despite a plot that could have been rendered a sprawling mess in lesser hands. Instead, it's a dazzling collage of sensational stunts within the framework of a clever story that somehow manages to make sense.

More to the point, Eisner's casting choices, while unconventional, are inspired: McConaughey and Zahn are not exactly the first names in action, but their chemistry is undeniable, and the mix of energy and tongue-in-cheek playfulness they bring to the proceedings is pitch-perfect. It would have been supreme folly for Sahara to take itself too seriously, and with this duo's Indiana Jones-meets-Cheech and Chong approach, that's never an issue. Indeed, they seem to be having a blast, and the feeling is contagious.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars