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MOVIE REVIEW

'Sahara' is a vast waste of creativity

Bye-bye, Eisner. Hello . . . Son of Eisner?

Yes, the Eisner name is in the spotlight yet again. Only this time it's Breck Eisner, 30-something scion of departing Disney CEO Michael Eisner, and you shouldn't bother scouring back issues of Variety if you've never heard of the unheralded young director, because his debut feature film, ''Sahara," isn't going to make him a mogul anytime soon.

In fact, ''Sahara" is such an undistinguished action-adventure effort that its fleet of more than a dozen producers should probably be grateful for all the gossip and controversy this project has generated, starting with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by Clive Cussler, who wrote the novel on which the movie's script is based. That disjointed script is credited to no fewer than four writers at this point, and Cussler (who claims his final approval rights were ignored) doesn't appear to be a fan of any of them.

It's not hard to see why.

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, and Penelope Cruz, ''Sahara" comes to the screen as a formulaic and ''family-friendly" action-adventure film that's good-natured enough to entertain here and there, but that otherwise loses its way long before the characters complete their implausible quest.

Beginning as the Civil War tale of a Confederate ironclad battleship that may or may not have navigated from the coast of Virginia to the waters of Africa's Niger River before disappearing with valuable cargo aboard, the ''Sahara" story quickly jumps to the present, where it becomes ''The Dukes of Hazzard" on safari, complete with a Southern-fried rock soundtrack.

McConaughey plays Dirk Pitt, a Navy SEAL turned adventurer and salvage expert, who in this installment of Cussler's long-running series is obsessed with the legend of the Dixie warship. His wisecracking sidekick is boyhood buddy Al Giordino (Zahn), ready to hurl himself into harm's way at the first sign of trouble.

While the tanned, toned McConaughey is a credit to his sleeveless shirts, he's still not the riveting combination of Indiana Jones and James Bond that the story would have us fall for (nor anything like the cerebral Dirk that a miscast Richard Jordan presented in 1980's ''Raise the Titanic," for that matter).

And Al, beefy in book form, is drawn here as the cuddly, unkillable equivalent of a cartoon Care Bear.

While in Africa on a salvage mission for a company run by one retired Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy), Dirk discovers proof that his ironclad holy grail may indeed be nearby, so he and Al point the admiral's powerboat in the direction of Mali and crank up ''Sweet Home Alabama."

Along for the ride are nerdy crewmate Rudi (Rainn Wilson, of TV's ''Six Feet Under" and ''The Office"), and activist-physician Eva Rojas (Cruz), who's part of a medical team that hopes to find the source of a deadly epidemic that's quickly spreading downriver.

The bad guys chasing the doctors -- and, by extension, Dirk -- are working for an African tyrant (Lennie James) and a shady industrialist (Lambert Wilson) who need to stop the intruders from discovering the true nature of the epidemic, which has far-reaching environmental, cultural, and political consequences.

So cue the exotic-location fisticuffs and all manner of things exploding, plus a ridiculous pile of coincidences and over-the-top escapes that even by action standards are not to be believed. Only don't expect onscreen sparks between Cruz and McConaughey, despite their real-life postproduction coziness, because it's rare that they even get close enough to compare teeth whiteners.

What does provide some excitement is the polished look of the film -- especially early on, before you become exasperated with its muddled story line and endless contrivances.

In a snappy opening sequence, the camera flits like a housefly over all the important objects in Dirk's cluttered office, and bustling ports and vibrant landscapes take on music-video slickness. It's nothing new but it is done stylishly, which is something.

Let's be honest, criticism was bound to dog ''Sahara" from the moment that Eisner, with his limited résumé in television and commercials, signed on to direct this big-budget project after several better-known directors bowed out. In the end, the thing that Cussler's fans will probably object to most is the nonsensical way ''Sahara" manhandles his story, and leaves out an entire Abraham Lincoln subplot that might have lent the whole Confederate warship odyssey a point.

Is that Eisner's fault, or simply his unfortunate inheritance? It's a debate to be continued.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage22@hotmail.com.

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