A desert stormed

'Sahara' plot is a bit daft, but the actors make it work

Wanted: A hero to fill vacancy left by Indiana Jones and James Bond. If entering the high-stakes world of thwarting the grand schemes of dastardly villains sounds like your calling, then this line of work is for you. Applicant must be tall, dark, handsome - chiseled six-pack is a prerequisite - and ready to save damsels in distress with chivalrous flair. (A passing knowledge of feminist issues is preferred, but not required.) The position includes travel to exotic locations where responsibilities will include eluding henchmen by car, boat, or plane. Candidates must be able to deliver insouciant one-liners. Vin Diesel need not apply.

Hollywood, we have your man: Dirk Pitt, the shipwreck diver of Clive Cussler's bestselling novels, as perfectly embodied by Matthew McConaughey.

We're first introduced to Pitt off the coast of Niger where he and the crew of the National Underwater and Marine Agency are engaged in a salvage operation. It's here that he meets Ava (Penélope Cruz), one of those beautiful scientists who, one presumes, was plucked from obscurity when an M.I.T. recruiter discovered her modeling on a catwalk. She works for the World Health Organization and is looking into the outbreak of a mysterious plague that originated in Mali.

As it so happens, Pitt rather fancies an excursion to that country to follow up on a local legend about sightings of a Confederate Ironside that disappeared in 1865. (To those unfamiliar with Cussler's oeuvre, the notion of a Civil War ship ending up in a desert will seem unfathomably daft - go with it and you'll have a lot more fun.) Ava and Pitt venture into the country, accompanied by Pitt's longtime friend and colleague, Al Giordano (Steve Zahn), where they soon run afoul of a dictator and a French industrialist who's responsible for the plague.

"Sahara" should appeal to fans of "National Treasure," last year's hit blend of ersatz archaeology and adventure. The secret ingredient that makes this handsome thriller so enjoyable is the chemistry between Alpha-male McConaughey and zany Zahn. If the yarn careens around plot corners on one wheel at times, it manages to do so without losing its balance as a sleek thrill ride.

Rated PG-13 for action violence.

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