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DESERT STORM
WHAT'S A CIVIL WAR BATTLESHIP DOING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SAHARA? MAYBE YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW

Sahara **(out of four)

Rated PG-13

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, William H. Macy and Penelope Cruz. Directed by Breck Eisner. Modern-day adventurer Dirk Pitt searches for a missing Civil War battleship.

Running time: 127 minutes

It was one of those unguarded moviegoer moments; the kind where you spontaneously applaud or let out a cheer and then sheepishly look around to see if anyone noticed.

But in the case of "Sahara," the new adventure flick based on a Clive Cussler book, it went more like this:

"You're bored?" the nephew asked.

"What?" I asked, perplexed.

"You said you're bored."

He got me there. I had put my head back, let out a big sigh and uttered, "I'm bored."

It was funny at the time, but I've thought seriously about that statement in the weeks since seeing "Sahara," trying to figure out why anyone would be bored at a big-screen adventure that's part Indiana Jones, part James Bond, part campy fun. It has an attractive cast led by Matthew McConaughey in a role he wears like a comfortable old shirt; it's loaded with laughs every time the reliable Steve Zahn is on screen; and there's even the excellent William H. Macy, for goodness sakes.

But bored I was; the teen nephew (the film's target audience) wasn't too entertained, either (nor were some of the folks around us, at least as much as we could gather). Movie fans could use a new "franchise" (don't you love that trendy new film industry term) about a hip, young adventurer and this could have been it -- this, in fact, should have been it.

McConaughey (who was also the film's executive producer) stars as Dirk Pitt, a scientist, scholar, inventor and ladies' man who is the hero of a slew of Cussler books. He's a well-rounded, really smart guy who loves history and looks like a supermodel.

Dirk and his best buddy Al Giordino (Zahn) work for NUMA, the National Underwater and Marine Agency headed by the cigar-chomping Admiral James Sandecker (Macy). They go on all sorts of nifty adventures like diving for cool things under water or digging them up from underground. Yet it's not enough for Dirk, who remains obsessed with finding a Civil War battleship that seemingly vanished into thin air. He believes it floated into the ocean and landed in the Sahara desert (it wasn't always a desert, he tells us).

Enter the lovely Dr. Eva Rojas (mousy Penelope Cruz) who works for the World Health Organization. She's investigating a plague-like disease that is killing hundreds of African villagers and could spread throughout the world.

Could the ghost ship and this modern plague be linked somehow? Will the diminuative Dr. Eva and the brawny Dirk get together? Will Al be able to keep his treasured baseball hat on?

Those questions and more will be answered as Dirk, Al and Eva go off on an adventure packed with one perilous situation after another as a rock soundtrack blares the likes of "Sweet Home Alabama."

So why does this adventure yarn become an adventure yawn? First, it's downright derivative right down to a score that copies the trademark brass of the James Bond theme anytime there are Bond-like stunts happening. And speaking of Bond-like stunts, some of the ones in "Sahara" are absurd even by 007's standards.

"Sahara" is the first feature film for director Breck Eisner, who previously helmed the miniseries "Taken," in addition to pilots for "The Invisible Man" and "Thoughtcrimes." (His dad is soon-to-be-ex-Disney honcho Michael Eisner, which might explain the film's penchant for excess.)

He has the elements there, but they're not clicking. The pacing is off and there are too many scenes, making the film feel much longer than it is. And as the ludicrous situations and stunts continue, you'll want to say "enough already" or, in my case, "I'm bored."

e-mail: truberto@buffnews.com