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National Treasure (A Movie Review)


Starring Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Jon Voight, Sean Bean, Harvey Keitel, David Dayan Fisher, Stewart Finley-McLennon, Oleg Taktarov, Stephen Pope, Annie Parisse, Mark Pellegrino, Armando Riesco, Erik King and Christopher Plummer.

Screenplay by Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley and Mariane Wibberley.

Directed by Jon Turteltaub.

Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. 131 minutes. Rated PG.

National Treasure is one of those movies that are a whole lot of fun, as long as you don't think about it too much.

It's a piece of eye candy, not good for you, but it tastes just fine going down. It is a typical Jerry Bruckheimer film – it values spectacle over coherence, action over plot, and explosions over conversations. If you like that kind of stuff, you’ll love National Treasure. If you don’t like movies which are created just for adrenaline (and honestly, I generally don’t) then it has just enough plot, just enough intriguing historical aspect to make it better than the average action potboiler.

Nicolas Cage is in that autopilot mode he goes into when he makes Bruckheimer spectacles (see also The Rock, Gone In Sixty Seconds and Con Air). I don’t think it is possible for him to give a truly bad performance, but through much of the film it does seem like he’s phoning it in. His character of Benjamin Franklin Gates seems oddly detached, like he is experiencing everything going on about ten seconds after the rest of the world. It’s almost like Cage recognizes that this is just garbage, so he isn’t going to work too hard to invest it with gravity. So while the performance is technically proficient, it certainly isn’t going make anyone forget Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation.

Cage plays a renegade fortune hunter who has been searching for a grand treasure – one so vast that no one man could handle it – that was hidden by the founding fathers of the United States. As a little boy, his Grandfather (Christopher Plummer) told him the story of how his great-great-great-great Grandfather was given the final clue to the treasure’s whereabouts by a dying revolutionary war businessman. Ever since, the family has grown a reputation amongst the historical community as men of La Mancha, tilting at windmills while searching for a mythical fortune. Ben is estranged from his father (Jon Voight), who had spent twenty years of his life searching before finally buying into the common belief that they were on a fool’s errand, and he hates to see his son wasting his life as he had done.

The one clue that they have says that Charlotte holds the secret. Somehow Gates finally realizes that Charlotte was not a woman, it was a ship, which disappeared in the 1700s. Somehow, he also figures that it would have ended up at the Arctic Circle. (It is very fuzzy in the film how Cage figured this out and where the ship would be, but then again that’s thinking of the plot again…) So, he and his cohorts go up to the frozen tundra, walk around for about thirty yards with metal detectors and "Eureka!" they find the Charlotte. Luckily after over three hundred years, it was only covered by about a foot of loosely packed snow, so they dig down to find the next clue… an inscrutable riddle that puzzles them all before about five minutes later Gates realizes it means that the map to the treasure is on the back of the original Declaration of Independence.

Of course, in one of these films it turns out that the people who they were working with would double-cross them, so Ian (Sean Bean) and the others decide to leave Gates and his friend (Justin Bartha) to die in the frozen wreck as they head down to Washington DC to steal the document. Gates' intelligence allows for him and his friend to survive, so they also go to the nation’s capital to try to convince the National Gallery that the document is in danger of theft.

He talks with Dr. Abigail Chase, the comely young woman who is in charge of antiquities for the museum. She is torn – part of her thinks that Gates is insane, but another part is charmed by the brash young treasure hunter’s passion for history. Diane Kruger is very good and very sexy as this character, although you spend the entire movie thinking that she seems awfully young not only to be a doctor, but also then to have worked her way up the government ranks into such a vitally important job. But, again, that is thinking about the story, which is not part of the National Treasure plan.

Still, she refuses to allow Gates to see the parchment, so he decides to steal it rather than allow Ian to get ahold of it and probably destroy this priceless historical artifact. This leads to a pair of theft attempts on the National Gallery at the same time, with Cage eventually beating Ian out for the prize. Dr. Chase is drawn into the plot by accident but comes along to guarantee the safety of the Declaration. This leads to a series of riddles that lead them to Philadelphia, New York and Boston. The founding fathers apparently had a lot of time on their hands to come up with these labyrinthine clues, traps, locks and secret chambers. It’s amazing they had the extra time to win the Revolutionary War.

I won’t tell you if they find the treasure, because that is half the fun of the film. I will just tell you that before the climax, you get a whole series of chases, gunfights and death-defying stunts. Which is all that most people ask for in a film like this.

National Treasure is a transparent attempt to beat the similarly plotted best-selling novel The DaVinci Code into the multiplexes. (Ron Howard is directing a movie version of that book with Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou due for a 2005 release.) While I can't in all conscience say that National Treasure is a good film, I also can't lie and say that I didn't kind of enjoy it. (11/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: December 16, 2004.

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