The Clive Cussler universe of action adventure with character Dirk Pitt in
the hotseat never stretched as far as it does in this yarn, in which he tries
to convince us that a Confederate ironclad battleship called the "CSS Texas"
escaped the siege of Richmond during the civil war with a cache of mysterious
heavy boxes, mysteriously disappeared, and wound up in the Sahara desert.
But, that's what he did in his novel of the same name, and that's what the
filmmakers, headed by director Breck Eisner, do here.
Research scientist, doctor Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), investigating what
appears to be an infectious disease that is killing people coming out of
Mali, is attacked on the beach by masked men who are seriously trying to kill
her. Their mistake is in doing so within eye and earshot of former navy SEAL
Pitt (Matthew McConaughey), who's been relaxing with a little
After an opportunity to demonstrate his hand-to-hand combat skill, we're with
her when she awakens on a salvage ship and discovers Pitt and his sidekick Al
Giordino (Steve Zahn) hauling up a valuable artifact from the depths and
finishing up a salvage operation for N.U.M.A. (National Underwater and Marine
Agency). He restores the dazed and impressed doctor to the mainland where
she and her colleague Dr. Frank Hopper (Glynn Turman) continue their work for
WHO (World Health Organization) by making their way to Mali. Pitt and his team
split off to pursue the fate of the lost ship.
So, there they are one day, happily trolling on the Niger River in a
speedboat borrowed from N.U.M.A.'s grumpy chief, Admiral Sandecker (a
tongue-in-cheek William H. Macy in a part previously played by Jason Robards
in 1980's "Raise the Titanic"), for tell-tale bumps on the bottom when their
water sampling turns up a strange chemical that wouldn't likely be found in
a river. Just how it got there will be discovered as they get closer
to the bad guys who rule and kill in these parts of the desert, sociopathic
General Kazim (Lennie James) and smug French industrialist, Yves Massarde
(Lambert Wilson). Who said these guys were stereotypes?
Anyway... the predictability of hero and heroine crossing paths and combining
forces doesn't completely swamp the lively stream of action, which includes
lots of gunplay and bombs, the itinerant "Ship of Death" and the ultimate
discovery of what's causing the mysterious plague-like deaths. No surprise
that it has something to do with an evil alliance of power and greed.
Better than most films derived from novels, it's a pretty faithful
translation to the medium. It should be, since Cussler co-wrote it in
collaboration with screenwriter Thomas Dean Donnelly ("Thoughtcrimes," 2003)
and had every opportunity to ensure faithfulness to his original work. So, if
it doesn't come off as well or better than the book, we know where the blame
Either way, no one is going to accuse Cussler of not providing us with
escapist fare. To a fault (and they are many), his plot lines are sometimes
outlandish exaggerations to achieve a full dose of testosterone in a
framework of action and adventure. He's a hugely successful author with a
large, passionate readership that readily forgives him any literary
Cussler has pretty steadfastly kept his Dirk Pitt series out of the clutches
of Hollywood, so it may be significant that he has, at last, consented. One
might also infer that he had to personally agree to the casting, especially
for his Dirk Pitt.
This time around a buff Matthew McConaughey leads the quest, with his and his
character's physical magnetism and captivating charm.
The comedic banter between him and his sidekick Giordino, which comes off in
the books more as a protective surrogate than the drinking buddy, guy-talking
second banana type we get from Steve Zahn. Cussler might have opted for a
better choice for a character creation that affords an important texture to
his unique variation on male bonding. Comedic quipping keeps it
light and fun, and... flimsy, where "danger" is all too comfortable.
As for the female lead, the very hot Cruz appears to be a satisfaction for
the commercial interests of the studio. She's an acting chameleon who has
been sliding from small, low-budget Spanish films ("Don't Move," "Don't Tempt Me") to large scale
American epics ("Vanilla Sky,"
"Gothika," "Head in the Clouds"). She's not
wanting for work but I'm not volunteering to pay her travel costs.
How her delicate beauty comes off is largely a matter of makeup and hair
styling , and those teams, on this picture, seem to have been well occupied
as they rendered her from "doctor" severity and all seriousness to the more
open, flowing girl of action and physicality who jumps from running camels to
trains on the move and buries herself in sand as tactical camouflage.
Besides being considered the babe of the moment on the American side of the
pond, her unique quality in acting and sensuality is better showcased in her
films from abroad.
But all that doesn't mean there's nothing of interest here. Indeed, it's
visually smashing and the actors are fun to watch as they romp on the
sweeping African desert to discover clues and villains in a diversion for
early summer entertainment that will resonate particularly with Cussler-Pitt
As a past reader of that series, I'm here to report that the attempt to
make his concept of an ironclad ship making its way from Richmond, Virginia
to the African desert is no more credible on film than it was on paper. It
is, however, colorful fantasy, and it provides a stunning visual anomaly on
screen. But it's this sort of reaching that contributed to my graduation
toward other mystery-thriller writers whose story hooks don't come off as so
much formulaic over-effort.
~~ Jules Brenner