-By Daniel Eagan

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Based on one of a series of Clive Cussler novels featuring Dirk Pitt, Sahara is a lavish, exciting adventure with an enthusiastic cast, dramatic locations and thrilling action sequences. While it doesn't rewrite the genre, it finds a way to deliver with style and humor everything adventure fans want.

A prologue set in the Civil War explains how a Confederate ironclad with a fortune in gold ends up buried in the Sahara desert. Taking time off from underwater exploration, salvage expert Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) sets out to find it. Clues lead Pitt and his partner Al Giordano (Steve Zahn) from Nigeria to Mali, a country torn apart by civil war. They are joined by Dr. Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz), a doctor with the World Health Organization who is seeking the root cause of a deadly disease that is wiping out rebel villages.

Along the way, they must cope with the menacing soldiers of General Kazim (Lennie James), a despot willing to sacrifice his people for money, as well as rebel troops hiding in mountain villages. That's before Pitt learns that a giant solar-power facility run by wily French businessman Yves Massarde (Lambert Wilson) could contaminate the entire Atlantic Ocean.

The solar-power set provides the least inspired material in the film, but for the most part Sahara moves briskly through a plot that is colorful, exciting and politically aware, if not totally responsible. In his feature debut, Breck Eisner does a creditable job with repartee and an outstanding one with action, particularly during a high-speed boat chase. Eisner also makes very good use of the film's remarkable Moroccan and Spanish locations.

Sahara's accomplished cast provides an ingratiating atmosphere that's often missing from adventure films. As the wisecracking sidekick, Zahn shines in the action sequences, displaying the fear and humor needed to ground the story's comic-book heroics. Cruz embraces her role wholeheartedly, with none of the hesitation one might expect from her art-film background. When she pulls herself up gasping to the top of a freight train, she even seems exhilarated. McConaughey finds a nice balance between brawn and parody, and is the beneficiary of astute action choreography that involves him directly in several stunts.

It's easy to pick apart Sahara's flaws-the recycled action clichés, the incongruous rock soundtrack, the often repetitive fights. But those who only ask to be entertained will find the film a fast, funny and occasionally rousing adventure that doesn't condescend to them.

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