While watching this movie, Judge Jim Thomas was overcome with déjà poo—the unsettling feeling that he's seen this crap before. And it was a lot more fun the first time around.
It's the greatest adventure history has ever revealed.
As a special holiday bonus, this review comes with its own soundtrack:
[cue "Duke of Earl"]
A few days ago, December 14 to be exact, a mysterious package appeared on my doorstep. My suspicions were first raised when a booby trap on the envelope left me with a nasty paper cut, but I persevered. Inside was another package, within which were two curious discs. As it turns out, those discs, by means of some strange alchemy, had a message encoded on their surface. It took some doing, but I was finally able to identify the method of encryption, and obtained a decoder. To my chagrin, the decoder yielded another code—a series of images and sounds. Viewing the images left me unsettled, as though I had been warned by Cassandra of some impending doom. A few seconds later, the phone rang. Trembling, I picked it up.
"Seven Days." Oh, crap.
Self-preservation is a great motivator, and at great personal risk, I unlocked the second code by means of repeated viewings and my Little Orphan Annie decoder wheel; if you'll bear with me for just a little more, I'll reveal the solution. But I'll have to be quick about it—my seven days are almost up.
Facts of the Case
Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas is a man with a mission. When he was young, his grandfather (Christopher Plummer, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) let him in on a family secret: Back in 1831, Thomas Gates worked as a stablehand/coach driver for Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. Near death, Carroll, a member of the secret society known as the Masons, put into Thomas' hands the only remaining clue to the fabled treasure of the Knights Templar. Ever since, the Gates family has been a family of crackpot treasure hunters, seeking for more clues, hoping to find the treasure of all treasures. Ben's father (Jon Voight, Coming Home) long ago dismissed the treasure as a fantasy, but when young Ben is initiated into the secret by his grandfather, the obsession is implanted in the next generation.
The clue entrusts to the family is cryptic indeed: "The key lies with Charlotte."
The movie proper begins with Ben, all growed up, on an expedition above the Arctic Circle. He believes that "Charlotte" is a Civil War frigate, and holds the key to redeeming his family name. He's joined by Ian Howe (Sean Bean, Goldeneye), who is funding the expedition, and Ben's friend Riley (Justin Bartha), an electronics whiz. The Charlotte is indeed found, and the next clue to the treasure is discovered. But once Ben realizes that the next clue is on the back of the Declaration of Independence, he concedes that the trail is cold. There's just no way to examine the document. At that point Howe, who doesn't give a rip about the Declaration (well, he is British…), double-crosses Ben and Riley, and sets off to steal the Declaration and find the treasure. Ben realizes that the only way to protect both the Declaration and the treasure is to steal the Declaration and find the treasure before Howe…And they're OFF!!!
Thus begins a caper to end all capers, a treasure hunt to end all treasure hunts, and one of the more inane plots in recent memory.
Take equal parts Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The DaVinci Code. Stir in a cup of Mission: Impossible, a cup of The Mummy, an American history book, remove 50 IQ points, and bake for half the time indicated on the directions. Congratulations! You just created the plot for National Treasure.
Now, I love a good action/thriller as well as the next person. Die Hard, Aliens. Those are good action movies. They never get old, and I've watched both enough to know. They know how to raise the stakes and how to keep ratcheting up the tension. That never happens here. There's more tension in an episode of Dora the Explorer. The problem is that the film's pacing is too controlled. On the commentary for the deleted scenes, director Jon Turteltaub repeatedly talks about cutting this or that scene to protect the rhythm, for pacing purposes. And it finally hit me—the movie's rhythms are so regular, it could be used as a metronome. They run from Ian to the next clue. They find a new clue. The tinkly music of inspiration plays. Someone exposits the history needed to interpret the clue. Then Ian shows up and it all starts over again. And while pacing is important to a movie, a good action thriller knows when to upset that rhythm, catching both characters and audience off guard. The closest thing we get there is the sudden death of one Howe's minions towards the end, but even that was telegraphed. Sure, in the latter half of the movie, the FBI is an added complication, but Harvey Keitel, more or less reprising his character from Thelma and Louise, is so laid back that those scenes add little additional tension; they simply serve to keep the plot moving.
Action movies have worked with flimsier plots than this, mainly by giving us some characters that we care about. These characters barely qualify as two-dimensional, let alone three. The bulk of the character development for Ben Gates is done in the opening flashback—which is fairly effective, in large part because Christopher Plummer can sell any scene, anytime, anywhere. Cage tries to channel Cary Grant and/or Jimmy Stewart, but it just doesn't work. There is substantial evidence (sadly, little of it recent) that Cage can act and act well, but he lacks the innate grace of Grant or the everyman quality of Stewart, so when he goes for those particular notes, he falls flat; When he tries to be earnest, he just comes across as somewhat creepy. Jon Voight gets the thankless role of playing Dr. Henry Jones—er, Papa Gates, acting as quest naysayer until confronted with incontrovertible evidence, at which point he instantly turns cheerleader.
Diane Kruger (Troy) is set up to play Rachel Weisz to Cage's Brendan Fraser. The problem is, The Mummy gave us ample opportunity to see the chemistry between its two leads; in fact, that attraction drives the plot. But here, there are maybe two romantically charged moments between Cage and Kruger. When the two end up together at the end of the movie, it's only because we recognize that the formula demands it, nothing more. It's a shame, really, because I get the sense that Kruger is more than a face that can launch a thousand ships; but she's just given nothing to work with. Justin Bartha does a nice job with the stereotypical sidekick role, but I get the impression that a lot of backstory for him ended up on the cutting room floor; a joke near the end of the movie about an Egyptian statue doesn't have much of a setup.
Extras are minimal, and don't even begin to justify the double dip. There's still no commentary on the film itself, just commentary for deleted scenes and the alternate ending. Everyone involved with the first movie was working on the sequel, so rounding a few of them up for a commentary shouldn't have been that big a challenge. (It's wonderfully ironic that they didn't go with the original ending because they thought it played like they were setting up a sequel.) In fact, given that all the new material is on the new disc, it's hard to shake the feeling that the first disc is just the original release with a new label. Hmm, another clue to the puzzle!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In his judgment of the original release, Judge Patrick Naugle characterized the movie as an action-adventure movie that the whole family can enjoy. And I get that—I've got three small kids of my own. The film doesn't have much in the way of violence, death, sex, or foul language. At the same time, though, isn't it damning with faint praise when the best thing that you can say about an adventure movie is that it doesn't have anything that might be inappropriate for children? The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe has two of the three, and possibly all three, depending on how sexy you find Tilda Swinton's Ice Queen.
And, to be fair, the movie does have a certain, check-your-brain-at-the-door breezy sense of fun to it. But that's not always enough.
A couple of years ago National Treasure surprised the same people who were surprised at the success of Armageddon, and for much the same reason. Here we are, two years later, and the premiere of National Treasure: Book of Secrets arrives on December 21, seven days after I received the mysterious package and phone call, and lo! A new release of National Treasure suddenly appears. I sensed some insidious force behind it all, particularly when I saw the sticker on the protective sleeve: "First Time On 2-Disc DVD!" How lame is that? And that, my friends, is what led me on my quest, and the solution to the code:
Disney wants all your money.
Either that, or "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine."
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